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An extended break coupled with the confidence he gained from his time in the All Blacks has Hurricanes playmaker Beauden Barrett excited about the season ahead.
Having enjoyed more than two months away from rugby after the All Blacks' end-of-season tour, Barrett's return to Wellington has been seamless.
"I really have been enjoying my time back in Wellington and getting stuck back into work," he said yesterday.
A year ago he was on the cusp of taking over the Hurricanes' No 10 jersey, a job he did with such authority All Blacks coach Steve Hansen called him up for the June internationals against Ireland.
Now, 12 months on, the 21-year-old has an expectant fan base wanting him to guide the Hurricanes from mid-table finishes to the playoffs, starting with tomorrow night's opening game against the Blues.
"I'm still very excited, as I was for the start of last season," he said.
"I don't feel a lot different, to be honest, because we've got a similar team this year and I'm quite excited about our potential. We've got a strong belief in this team and I'm just looking forward to getting stuck in."
While it took him a couple of weeks to "get back up to speed" with his team-mates, Barrett felt the overall squad was in better condition than last season, the notable exception being Cory Jane, who suffered a competition-ending knee injury earlier this month.
"The time is right for us to get into the competition," he said. "The team has not changed a lot and there are a lot of familiar faces around me, so we're used to combining together and that's got to help.
"Even though we've had some time apart, as soon as we got to throw the ball around it just seemed to gel. Hopefully, that will show on Saturday and throughout the season."
Barrett felt he did not have too much to work on, offering up passing, game leadership and his defence as areas he had given attention to.
The latter is sure to be one area where he will be targeted, something opposition coaches focused on through 2012.
"I'm looking forward to putting into practice what I learnt at the end of last season [with the All Blacks] and hopefully I can continue to improve as a player.
"I think I will be targeted [defensively] because it's something we do to opposition teams - look to run at their 10 during the transition zones, the lineout and scrum, because it's the easiest place to attack."
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett has named a largely predictable side to face the Blues, No 8 Brad Shields being the major talking point after he got through just half an hour of work in the side's pre-season fixtures.
Shields' selection, and the inclusion of Mark Reddish on the bench along with Faifili Levave, mean there is no place in the squad for Taranaki lock James Broadhurst, a regular in 2012. Prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and winger Matt Proctor were not considered after suffering concussion against the Chiefs.
James Marshall could make his Super Rugby debut if he comes off the bench.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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