It's the players who stayed rather than the ones who have arrived that Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett believes make his 2014 squad better than the last.
There were no big last minute surprises when New Zealand's five Super Rugby squad were officially announced in Auckland yesterday.
That's because direct franchise contracting has put paid to the horse trading of old allowing coaches to lock in their squads well in advance.
The Crusaders Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo was a beacon of unpredictability outside the make up of the five wider training groups, which surprisingly don't include Hawke's Bay pivot Ihaia West.
The Hurricanes have acquired four new players this season and while Mark Abbott, Marty Banks, Hadleigh Parkes and Cardiff Vaega may make their mark, they are not in the rockstar category.
So what makes Hammett confident his largely similar squad can do better than last year's disappointing 11th place finish?
"Because it's time to kick on," he said yesterday. "TJ [Perenara] and Beauden [Barrett] are no longer first-year guys. A lot of these guys have 30-odd matches under their belts so its time to step up in terms of leading on and off the field.
"It's a more intelligent squad now. What we've learned the last couple of years as a group is we are getting very clear on our playing style. We're not talking about being predictable, but we're clear on our strengths and where they need to be."
Hammett concedes the defence must improve and said it would be a big focal point heading into next year.
But he also believed Wellington's performances during the national provincial championship were proof of the Hurricanes playing group's upward trend.
"In 2012 a huge number of that group came through [to the Hurricanes] and I think we only had three All Blacks that year and now there are 10 if you include Victor [Vito]," he said.
"They rolled into 2013 potentially a little over confident and we've talked about that. I think they've rolled back to the ITM Cup and realised there's a bit more to this, you have to earn it. So there's a mixture of experience and understanding and growth physically.
"It's a wee bit hard to gauge that just from watching ITM Cup, but it was nice to see that up against a physical side like Canterbury ... I thought they were maybe even better in the contact area."
It's hard to argue with the fact Hurricanes forwards like All Blacks Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Dane Coles, Jeremy Thrush, Brad Shields and Ardie Savea won't be better next Super season than last.
Finding a consistently hard-nosed locking partner for Thrush remains a genuine question mark in the pack.
Jason Eaton didn't fill the role last year and one of the athletic James Broadhurst, mobile Abbott, grafting Mark Reddish or flanker-cum-lock Blade Thomson will need to step up.
Similarly, in the backs the Hurricanes have massive potential, but questions over the physicality of their midfield.
Hammett confirmed Parkes and Vaega had been brought in to provide a different option to Tim Bateman's skill game at second five-eighth.
"We wanted to have an element of a bit more physicality in the carry when we need it," Hammett said.
That may mean the influential Bateman floats out to centre at times though those opportunities will be limited if captain Conrad Smith is fit.
"One thing we saw during ITM was how good Tim is in that position [centre]. He's got a bit more time and because he's got such good pace he can get on the outside of people very effectively," Hammett said.
The positional make-up of the 2014 squad is largely the same as last year.
Karl Lowe's departure means there are just two opensides in Savea and Jack Lam, but there are two in the wider training group in Manawatu's Callum Gibbins and Wellington's Adam Hill.
Similarly, this year's squad contains only two halfbacks in Perenara and Chris Smylie, with Tasman's Billy Guyton in the wider squad.
The five wider group players are full time this season and can be selected on merit, rather than injury, albeit at a cost of $1000 a week to the franchise.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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