Robson: Hammer failed to nail it at Hurricanes

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 14/07/2014
 Mark Hammett
GETTY
SLOW OFF THE MARK: Mark Hammett's four-year tenure as Hurricanes head coach got off to a bad start and never fully fully recovered.

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OPINION: Mark Hammett slipped at the start line and never fully recovered.

A pity because the man known as Hammer showed himself to be a good bloke, a hard worker who genuinely cared for his players and his team.

His coaching ability during his four years in charge was less certain.

Hammett will probably become a very good head coach if he isn't one already, but Hurricanes fans shouldn't have had to watch him perform his apprenticeship.

He will likely acknowledge in hindsight that he wasn't quite ready to leap from Crusaders assistant to Hurricanes head honcho in 2011.

A more experienced head coach may have handled the departures of then captain Andrew Hore and 100-game Hurricane Ma'a Nonu with a little more tact.

Hammett's principles and intentions might have been admirable, but the execution of such a big change was poor from all involved and it hung over his efforts for the next three years.

Fairly or not, those early events will be the historical reference point for a period that saw the Hurricanes finish ninth, eighth, 11th and seventh with a winning percentage of just 46 per cent.

The appointment of veteran coaches Chris Boyd and John Plumtree as Hammett's successors suggest lessons have been learned.

Results aside, Hammett deserves credit for having the guts to take a punt and shift north to Wellington from Christchurch.

He had the fortitude to make some tough calls at a franchise that had slipped into bad habits.

Technically, his players have praised his abilities there is healthy buzz around the Newtown training base where hard work has never been hard to find.

But consistency of performance has not matched the talk or the talent.

Selections often frustrated and confused. Last season it was the promotion of Tusi Pisi ahead of Beauden Barrett at first five-eighth against the Blues, a year earlier the resting of key players during a home loss to the lowly Cheetahs.

This year it was the early season preference of the work-man-like Adam Hill over Faifili Levave and Ardie Savea at loose forward, the non-selection of Andre Taylor at fullback, then the use of Cardiff Vaega at second five-eighth against the Brumbies when Alapati Leiua was the obvious midfield choice.

Leiua's move to the midfield was a major success, but probably a season too late.

Late season injuries to Victor Vito, Levave, Taylor, Leiua and Conrad Smith hurt the Hurricanes as they lost to the Chiefs to come up one bonus point short of their first playoff berth since 2009.

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That was forgivable, but the damage was done earlier in the season. Tactically the game plan in South Africa didn't suit the roster.

Barrett was asked to play percentages, and kick for territory and the halfbacks and back three looked to kick and chase rather than play the counter attack as they saw it.

Wing Cory Jane called the game-plan "boring" and it wasn't until the players were forced to chance their hand during an ultimately failed comeback against the Highlanders in Dunedin did they start to look like they were on the same page.

After losing four of their first five matches the Hurricanes beat the Crusaders, Bulls, Blues and Reds to revive their season. At times they looked like a championship team including two wins over the Crusaders and a demolition of the Chiefs.

The set piece and defence improved, the lineout was very good, Taylor ignited the backline, Barrett and Julian Savea flourished on attack, and Jack Lam and Levave were consistently excellent.

But the Hurricanes didn't convert. They sat back on a big lead against the Waratahs in Sydney, and lost 18-16 to the Highlanders in Wellington where they seemed confused what style to play in the wet.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes 2014 season mirrored Hammett's tenure, full of promise, but hindered by a poor start and an inability to execute at the most pivotal time.

- The Dominion Post

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