Big guns must re-load and fire for Hurricanes
Early signs suggest Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett has nothing to worry about as he looks to re-integrate and re-ignite his All Blacks for a desperate dash to make the Super Rugby playoffs.
The equation for Hammett's men has not changed during the competition's month long hiatus.
Beat the Crusaders at Westpac Stadium on Saturday night, then knock over the defending champion Chiefs in Hamilton a week later and they will almost certainly gain a pass into the post season.
It's a tough ask, made all the harder by the fact the loss of captain Conrad Smith to a broken thumb and the fact the Hurricanes' Kiwi rivals all have an extra match from which to gain precious points.
One slip and it's game over, but if any team can grab maximum points in the final melee it's one containing Super Rugby's leading points scorer Beauden Barrett, June's test try-scoring sensation Julian Savea and the twinkling-again toes of Cory Jane.
"I'll check in with Jules and CJ, but we expect them all to be playing," Hammett said of his eight All Blacks.
"We've been in touch with them the whole time and obviously we have a strategy for them coming in late. We just want to make sure they're right and really up for this game because our next two games are test matches for us as well."
With a bye in the final round, Hammett will ask his test players to get up twice more, before nursing their bumps and bruises.
But senior back Tim Bateman, the most likely man to take the captaincy and the No 13 jersey in Smith's absence, said the challenge for the All Blacks was mental rather than physical after coming off the highs of a test series win over England.
"There have been a few guys in this morning and talking to Beaudy [Barrett] and Colesy [hooker Dane Coles] they are raring to go," Bateman said. "It comes down to how the coaches manage them. That's the crucial point because you have to get them fizzing.
"The reality is if you are coming off three tests against England it might be a little tougher to get up for [Super Rugby]. I'm hoping a game against the Crusaders, at home on Saturday night, it's a playoff for us really . . . will be enough to get everyone up."
Similarly, the Hurricanes three Samoan internationals Jack Lam, Alapati Leiua and Faifili Levave, face a similar challenge when they officially re-join the squad today.
Coles was quick to return two days early to go through lineout moves, Barrett was in studying the game plan and Levave a day early to get treatment on the ankle he rolled against Tonga.
Savea, Jane, halfback TJ Perenara, loose forward Victor Vito and prop Ben Franks will filter back over the next two days.
When they're all firing the Hurricanes look like the best team in Super Rugby, but their last performance, a crushing loss to the Blues, highlighted the inconsistencies that have plagued the side during Hammett's four years in charge.
The Crusaders have similar challenges in reintegrating their own sizeable All Black contingent and will be missing injured fullback Israel Dagg.
The Hurricanes have knocked the the red and blacks over once already this season, but the rematch does not come at ideal time.
No 8 Kieran Read appears to have flown through his 40 minute return from concussion during the All Blacks Hamilton rout and first five-eighth Dan Carter is set to make his Super Rugby return.
Carter revealed yesterday he's given up alcohol to aid his return and, despite only two matches for his club side Southbridge, he's sure to provide a psychological fillip for the Crusaders, most likely via the reserves bench.
Without their stars, the Crusaders were thumped by England's midweek side last week, while the Hurricanes had a successful trot against Manawatu and Hawke's Bay.