OPINION: The 26,000 supporters who turned up to Westpac Stadium to cheer the Hurricanes to victory over the Chiefs on Friday told the story.
Gone was the animosity towards coach Mark Hammett, and gone were the doubts about whether the greenhorn team he was forced to cobble together after the loss of six All Blacks last year would be worth braving a cold, blustery night to watch.
The Hurricanes have won back the faith of their fans.
When the 2012 Super 15 kicked off in February, few expected the Hurricanes would still be in contention for a play-off spot in the last week of pool play. Hammett's decision to sack All Black stars Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore the year before, followed by the exodus of All Blacks Piri Weepu, Hosea Gear, Aaron Cruden and Neemia Tialata had left the team in disarray and seriously depleted.
So bad was the outlook, even Hammett himself was playing down expectations by describing this as a "development" year. That is usually rugby management code for "we'll get thrashed most of the time".
In the end, the rugby historians will probably look back on 2012 as a mediocre year for the Hurricanes: played 16, won 10 and lost six for an eighth-place finish. The fact the team set a franchise record for the most tries in a single season - 58 - and that the Hurricanes knocked off some of the competition's leading sides to stay in the hunt right up to the final round will barely register.
As is often the case in sport, however, the official record will not tell the full story. The real success for the Hurricanes this year has not so much been what was achieved on the field, but what was achieved off it.
Hammett has banished the cliques and division that had been allowed to develop within the side and in its place built a renewed culture of unity and discipline.
As a result, the Hurricanes of today are a team of triers who believe in and play for each other, not a team of individual stars.
Along the way, Hammett has helped expose the Wellington, and New Zealand, rugby public to an exciting new generation of potential stars. This time last year, Hurricanes fans were seething at the loss of established All Blacks like Nonu and Weepu. Now, they are raving about the abilities of new All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Julian Savea and savouring the skills of potential future All Blacks like TJ Perenara and Andre Taylor.
The extent to which Hammett has built a new era of team spirit among the Hurricanes is also evident by the fact that 19 of the squad are already on board for next year, with Perenara, All Black loose forward Victor Vito and lock Jason Eaton the only big names yet to recommit. Getting the signatures of at least the first two of those is likely to be a formality, giving the Hurricanes a solid base for next year's campaign.
Hammett deserves credit for sticking to his guns in the face of huge criticism from Hurricanes fans during the past year. In doing so, he has turned a team that too often failed to achieve what it was capable of into one that is fast developing enormous potential. Bring on 2013.
- © Fairfax NZ News