Conrad Smith's broken thumb has created a late-season headache for Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett and added another degree of difficulty to his side's already tough task of reaching Super Rugby's playoffs.
Back from house hunting in Cardiff, Hammett suddenly needs a new centre and a new captain for next weekend's crucial clash with the Crusaders at Westpac Stadium.
Smith delivered the bad news to his Hurricanes coach via a phone message after scans confirmed he'd fractured his right thumb during the All Blacks 28-27 second test win over England in Dunedin on Saturday. He will be out for five to six weeks, meaning his Super Rugby season is over unless the Hurricanes reach the semifinals, which are scheduled for late July.
"It's a real bummer," Hammett said. "He left me a message last night and I know he's obviously hugely upset from a test perspective, but also from his message around missing potentially the rest of our season.
"Unfortunately it's just one of those things. He said he didn't even realise he'd done it early in the second half and it only showed up on the scan later on."
The Hurricanes, in sixth place going into the June test break, have two matches to play against the Crusaders in Wellington on June 28 and the Chiefs a week later in Hamilton.
Win both, and pick up bonus points along the way, and Hammett remains adamant they are still a chance of reaching the post season. But before any of that, the Hurricanes will play a warm-up match in Palmerston North tomorrow night with half a game each against Hawke's Bay and Manawatu.
While All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is pondering whether to throw young Highlander Malakai Fekitoa or experienced Crusader Ryan Crotty the No 13 jersey for the third test in Hamilton, Hammett is suddenly weighing his own midfield options.
"We obviously have Alapati [Leiua] and Timmy Bateman as the initial thoughts at centre," he said. "We will play Timmy at centre in this match [tomorrow] and assess where we are at in training next week."
Bateman will play outside Hadleigh Parkes at Arena Manawatu, but his more likely midfield partner against the Crusaders is Leiua, currently on test duties with Samoa.
"Playing Tim and Alapati together is on the table. It's a pretty exciting mix," Hammett said. "You can't replace Conrad, but certainly Tim's outside speed is appealing and along with Alapati, as a really combative second-five, it is something we need to look at."
While All Black loose forward Victor Vito would seem a captaincy candidate, Hammett said a senior player like Bateman or lock Jeremy Thrush was more likely for the Crusaders match. "I'll have a talk to the leadership group and decide what's best. But Victor and the other All Blacks will be away leading into that game, so it may be better if it's Thrushy or Timmy Bateman. We haven't nailed that off, but more likely those guys and let Victor concentrate on his job."
The Hurricanes will field as close to a full strength side as possible in Palmerston North. Fullback Andre Taylor (ankle) hooker Ash Dixon (ribs), outside back Nehe Milner-Skudder (hamstring), lock Mark Reddish, and prop John Schwalger (lungs) are all unavailable, while loose forwards Jack Lam and Faifili Levave and Leiua, are with Samoa.
"Nobody else is unavailable. In fact, to a man they have come and said they want to play and you can see why because a lot of them haven't played in two and a half weeks, so they're raring to get back into it," Hammett said.
Tomorrow night's match also includes a Wellington XV playing 40 minutes each against Manawatu and Hawke's Bay.
- The Dominion Post
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