Hurricanes look out for Blues x-factor
Conrad Smith says there is an uneasy feel about the role reversal the Hurricanes and Blues have experienced since they last met.
Written off by all and sundry a year ago, the Hurricanes go into tomorrow night's Super Rugby match at Westpac Stadium as favourites against a Blues side in an eerily similar situation.
"They are going to be a tough team at any time, but yeah, first game I don't think we could have picked a worse time," the Hurricanes captain said yesterday.
"They are going to come with plenty of energy and huge motivation from what they've been through. We understand that."
Acrimonious off-season departures, a host of new players and a doubting public - the Blues have motivation everywhere they look.
Smith knows it's a dangerous cocktail. He was the underdog's hero last year when he doggedly ran in the last-gasp, match-winning try in a 26-25 win over the Blues in round five at Eden Park.
This time it's the Blues whose team sheet screams inexperience. Halfback Piri Weepu is playing his 100th match and captain Ali Williams and prop Charlie Faumuina are current All Blacks, but after that it's a Super Rugby nursery.
Smith is aware of the energy and attacking threats that brings, traits which made the Hurricanes a handful for unsuspecting opponents last season.
"It's good the boys have all seen that and are aware of the threats they pose, especially with their ball runners."
The Blues have based a lot of their pre-season matches around the physicality of No 8 Peter Saili and it's been complemented by the hard running of physical backs such as Frank Halai, George Moala, Francis Saili and Rene Ranger.
And Smith's not the only one recognising something familiar in the opposition with coach Mark Hammett drawing the same comparisons.
"There's no doubt they have x-factor players and if you turn over ball you will be punished for it," he said. "That's something we pride ourselves on being able to do the same thing, but it's something they've shown is a real strength.
"Obviously JK [John Kirwan] and his coaching staff have really installed work ethic. That's what I'm seeing through the pictures, but this week is different. The intensity comes on and results count now for everything."
Which is where the team sheets start to sway toward the Hurricanes, who boast seven current or former All Blacks.
Where the Blues front row contains North Harbour hooker James Parsons and converted prop Tom McCartney, the Hurricanes boast All Black hooker Dane Coles and loosehead Ben Franks and veteran Ben May.
Having more experience and a perceived advantage up front represents a new era indeed for Hurricanes fans.
It's a change Hammett acknowledges and says his players must quickly adapt to and embrace.
"Last year it was us fighting out of a corner I suppose. This year, if we want to be consistent and a team that's always competitive, then we need to be able to handle pressure and handle expectation."
Hammett has handed a starting berth at No 8 to Brad Shields on the back of his 30 minutes pre-season cameo against the Chiefs last week, while Alapati Leiua has predictably taken Cory Jane's place on the right wing.
Meanwhile, 10,000 tickets had been sold for the match at the close of business yesterday.
Hurricanes: Andre Taylor, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields, Karl Lowe, Victor Vito, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Ben May, Dane Coles, Ben Franks. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Reggie Goodes, Mark Reddish, Faifili Levave, Chris Smylie, James Marshall, Reynold Lee-Lo.
Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Tom McCartney. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Angus Ta'avao, Liaki Moli, Brendon O'Connor, Bryn Hall, Baden Kerr, Jackson Willison.
The Dominion Post