As they move out of the shadows and back into the limelight, the Hurricanes must cope with renewed external pressure in 2013.
Hope, anticipation - these themes were not associated with Mark Hammett's second year in charge.
But on reflection, last year presented a clean slate as Hammett began a radical rebuild. Ma'a Nonu and then-captain Andrew Hore were jettisoned. At that point, many thought the former Crusader was bonkers. Few expected his side, who also lost Hosea Gear, Aaron Cruden and Piri Weepu, to be competitive.
"Last year we were seen at a really low ebb," chief executive James Te Puni said. "Because of that a lot of people expected us to tank and finish at the bottom of the table."
In the end, they missed the playoffs by just two points after a defiant, backs-to-the-wall campaign. It was a remarkable ride.
"Last year we didn't know what to expect," halfback T J Perenara said. "There were no expectations publicly. We got the motivation from people writing us off. We came together as a tight group to achieve that."
Only now has the underdog tag gone. So, too, has All Blacks wing Cory Jane, after his potentially season-ending ACL knee injury in training on Thursday - a huge blow to the team's aspirations.
So can the Hurricanes back it up?
This is no longer a rookie outfit; the new kids on the block must step up, with Conrad Smith and Victor Vito compensating for Jane's absence.
Last year, the public offered a temporary grace period. Essentially, the Hurricanes had nothing to lose, much like the position the Blues are in.
After the early, unsettling turbulence, eighth was a successful season.
Naturally, expectations are higher now. Playoffs are a minimum. Having seemingly proven themselves, the 24 returning players and nine new faces want to contest the title.
"We're here to win the competition, just like any other team, and we're confident about that. We think it is realistic," Perenara said.
Only once last year did the Canes lose consecutive matches. They learned their lessons quickly and know consistency will be crucial.
"We could muck around, but the truth is people have higher expectations of the Hurricanes," Te Puni said. "This year people expect us to challenge for the semifinals. We know that."
In this cut-throat competition, pressure and hype go hand-in-hand.
Hammett acknowledges the danger of second-year syndrome. He and backs coach Alama Ieremia oversaw the promotion of Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles to the All Blacks, and Hammett is conscious of keeping them, and other prospects, grounded.
Up-front, All Blacks prop Ben Franks, Coles and Ben May form a solid engine room, with heat being applied from Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and hard-hitting hooker Motu Matu'u.
With Vito, Brad Shields, Faifili Levave, powerhouse prodigy Ardie Savea, and experienced fetchers Karl Lowe and Jack Lam vying for places, the loose forwards pack some serious punch. Perenara and Barrett form a dynamic halves pairing. Tim Bateman and Smith may lack penetration, but the midfield duo showed creative guile and gutsy defence can be just as potent. And out wide, you couldn't ask for better finishers than Julian Savea and Andre Taylor.
Only at lock, where Jason Eaton, James Broadhurst and Jeremy Thrush contest the starting berths, do the Canes appear vulnerable.
Overall, if Hammett's men can go where their predecessors couldn't - carry the hopes of a success-deprived region and cope with mounting expectation - there's no reason the rebirth can't continue.
"There's a lot more knowledge around what we want to do as a team," Perenara said. "Last year we had a new concept, new ideas. Now we can build on those foundations." Sounds like a team heading in the right direction.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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