Hurricanes need a flowing game for an upset
CHIEF RUGBY WRITER
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett has made a pre-emptive strike in suggesting the Crusaders are masters of slowing the opposition's ball at the breakdown.
Though not suggesting his old outfit does anything untoward, Hammett will be hoping referee Bryce Lawrence shares his view because a free-flowing contest at AMI Stadium tonight is the visitors' best chance of an upset.
"We understand we need to be at our best and we know that's when we create fast ball and the Crusaders are at their best when they slow ball down," Hammett said. "So that's going to be an intriguing battle. We've worked on a few things, certainly around our forward play."
It's an astute observation because the Crusaders statistically lead the competition in gaining steals at the ruck, but rarely get penalised.
That ability to slow ball is less about technique than their legendary commitment and physicality at the collision. It allows the red and blacks precious time to set their defence, which has, not surprisingly, conceded the third least points in Super Rugby this season.
Hammett knows it will take something special to topple the Crusaders on their home patch and has called on his forward pack to rise the occasion, labelling it a virtual knockout match.
"It's around our patterns, being clear on what we are trying to achieve, where we are going and getting the numbers in the right place, and, whether you like it or not, attitude will have a big part to play this weekend.
"They've got seven in the pack who have played All Blacks with the exception of Matty Todd, so they're a very physical team and before the break that's where they were hurting teams."
Hurricanes openside Jack Lam's hamstring has been passed fit and, with backup from Karl Lowe via the bench, the loosies will look to tear into the breakdown.
Match the Crusaders physically and the Hurricanes know they're a chance.
They live and die on the irresistible force of a backline guided by the heady play of Beauden Barrett, Tim Bateman and Conrad Smith and punctuated by the finish of Julian Savea and Andre Taylor.
The Hurricanes have made the most tackle busts and scored the most tries in Super Rugby despite having the least amount of possession (43 per cent per match).
Last time the sides met, the Hurricanes pack took 20 minutes to adjust to the ferocity of their Crusaders opposites. Now they have a chance to prove they learned from the experience.
Senior forwards like prop Ben May, lock Jason Eaton and abrasive blindside Faifili Levave must step up for the rematch.
Parity at scrum time will be difficult and Crusaders strongman Ben Franks is sure to target young Hurricanes loosehead Reg Goodes in a bid to put pressure on the raw 8-9 combination of Chris Eaton and Brad Shields.
With TJ Perenara's running threat gone, the Hurricanes need to provide as close to an armchair ride as possible for Eaton to service his backline.
Either way, it promises to be an entertaining match. The Crusaders are close to a complete side ranking second and third respectively in points and tries scored.
They are inspirationally led by No8 Richie McCaw, and still expertly guided by halfback Andy Ellis in the absence of the injured first five-eighth Dan Carter.
But the home side have had some of their aura dulled by the absence of No8 Kieran Read, fullback Israel Dagg and, most significantly, Carter.
It has not been a vintage year for the fourth placed Crusaders, whose win-loss record of 9-4 is not light years ahead of the Hurricanes' at 8-6.
And after three weeks on the sidelines, anything is possible.
Follow Hurricanes news on Twitter @dp_hurricanes
- The Dominion Post
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