Hurricanes winning defence gets make-over

DOMINATION: Julian Savea (right) is congratulated by Hurricanes team-mates Matt Procter and TJ Perenara (left) after scoring in their demolition of the Chiefs.
DOMINATION: Julian Savea (right) is congratulated by Hurricanes team-mates Matt Procter and TJ Perenara (left) after scoring in their demolition of the Chiefs.

There have been times these past few years when defence has seemed optional for the Hurricanes, a tiresome chore that has interfered with the more enjoyable task of attack.

But after the Canes kept the Chiefs to a solitary try - and scoreless in the second half - during their 45-8 win at Westpac Stadium, it appears the tide is turning.

It appears coach Mark Hammett, in his fourth year in charge, has finally found a balance between focusing on defence, and his players feeling it will come at the expense of their attack.

''The thing with the Hurricanes is we don't have to have the best defence in the competition, but we did need to be a lot better than where we were and at the beginning of the year it was a real focus area,'' Hammett said.

''We've had [skills coach] Clark Laidlaw just doing our defence this year and he's done a good job. We have a solely defence-focused strategy group and we are pretty passionate about getting that part of our game right.

''We knew it would take some time. Firstly to get the structures right, but then also to believe. As you've seen, it isn't perfect but the last couple of weeks the attitude has been great.''

The win over the Highlanders was the first time the Hurricanes have kept an opponent try-less during Hammett's coaching tenure and statistics confirm an upward trend. 

The Hurricanes are currently conceding 23.3 points per match this season, the seventh best defence in the competition.

That is better than the Chiefs (24.3), Highlanders (25) and Blues (27), and on a par with the Crusaders (23.1).

It is also well down on Hammett's first three years in charge with 28.5 points per match conceded last season (ranked 12th), 26.8 in 2012 (10th), and 24.8 in 2011 (10th).

The Hurricanes' defence is currently the strongest it has been since the franchise last made the playoffs in 2009 when they conceded   21.4 points per match.

A big part of the improvement in the backline has been Alapati Leiua's move from the wing to second five-eighth where he has added a physical edge to the midfield.

And in the forwards, Jack Lam, Victor Vito, Jeremy Thrush and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen all tackle with a 90 per cent success rate.

Team tackle percentages though can be misleading.

The Sharks have the best defence in Super Rugby, conceding 18 points per match, but are second to last in tackle percentage.

That is because ability to scramble after a missed tackle defines attitude and how badly a team collectively want to keep their line intact.

That has become a strength for a Hurricanes side that last season usually conceded a try once their first line of defence was breached.

''It was good because the Chiefs threw everything at us, certainly in that first half,'' Hammett said.

''We weren't overly happy with our defence around the rucks. We weren't able to stop their off-load game. But to scramble and hold them to only one try was fantastic.

''We heard the Chiefs talking about attitude as a big thing for them and we felt that was the same for us.''


The Dominion Post