Hammett still feeling pressure at Hurricanes

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2013
Conrad Smith and Mark Hammett
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith, left, and coach Mark Hammett at the last captain’s run before their Super Rugby opener against the Blues in Wellington tonight.

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The crow's feet around Mark Hammett's eyes haven't softened and it's not just because of Wellington's endless summer.

Pressure has been a constant for the relocated Cantabrian since he crossed the strait to clean house at a franchise seen by many as New Zealand's great under-achiever.

The former Crusader's first year was all about finding his feet, getting a feel, rooting out the glitches in a region that churns out talent but falls flat at the finish line.

He jettisoned home town favourite Ma'a Nonu and captain Andrew Hore and then went about changing the prevailing attitude at the team's Newtown training base.

Community. Service. Privilege. Honesty. Respect.

Under Hammett and his ever-steady captain Conrad Smith, the ground shifted last season, but the pressure gauge hasn't moved.

If last year was about winning respect, this year is about winning - period.

But where's the pass mark?

"Look, if you wipe all the rubbish away, ultimately it will probably come down to making that top six," Hammett said ahead of tonight's season-opener against the Blues.

"We'd be lying if we didn't say we want to make it to a place where we can challenge [for the title]. You don't not talk about it. You don't ever hide from the elephant in the room.

"That's how it is, that's what it takes when you are a rugby player or a rugby coach in New Zealand, that's simple."

More complicated is channelling the side's new expectations into the same positive energy they generated as the underdogs.

It won't wash this time around to be thought of as feisty triers.

The Hurricanes haven't been to the playoffs since 2009 when they were beaten by the Chiefs in the semifinals.

The past three years read eighth, ninth and eighth. Another anonymous result and the "feel good" factor of 2012 will quickly lose its shine.

"What probably has changed is we have talked about how we want to put pressure on ourselves from a game focus," Hammett said.

"We are still in the business of winning respect from our community and our fans, but there is probably a wee bit more intensity around the physical, around the playing side of things. We have to make sure we have that internal pressure."

Hammett is confident his squad is better equipped this year, in both personnel and experience.

"What we do have within the plan is a bit more arsenal in terms of our physicality and a wee bit more in terms of our smarts because we are a year on," he said, with specific reference to inside backs TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett.

"It can be our greatest strength, but it can also be a weakness if they don't play on instinct and maybe they over think things.

"Maybe trying to be a smart football team we go in with too much rather than a narrow focus. That's for us as management to handle week in, week out.

"If the whiteboard is too chocka then you can come out more disorganised than when you went in."

Smith echoes the need to maintain some of the raw edge and simplicity of last season.

"Looking back last year we were a very new group, but I don't think we had that level of confidence," he said. "It would be nice to be part of a performance where we feel like we've got our game together."

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After nine Super seasons, Smith's been here before. A team pushed ahead of itself by public expectation and a galaxy of stars.

"It's harder with time. We've all said last year it was pretty easy to motivate ourselves. It wasn't a nice situation to be in at the time because it was also pretty daunting," he said.

"But in terms of motivation there was no expectation and that was quite refreshing.

"Now it's almost the expectation is ahead of the squad. That's the job of the leaders and the whole management to keep that in check and hopefully it doesn't creep into the performances."

You get the feeling Smith preferred last year's underdogs tag. It fitted him, allowed him to lead without fear. Took the pressure off the young guys.

"It's a lot different now, but that's not necessarily a good thing," he said. "Looking back on last year where everyone was on edge and you almost over-prepared, you were so worried about how you were going to go.

"This time we've prepared a lot better, but you don't want to be comfortable."

Perhaps it's why Smith's shaved his hair off. He's never been one for media hype. He still plays like he did when he wasn't getting paid.

Old-fashioned hard work is a trait the coach and captain share.

It shone through in the Hurricanes' play last season, but at crucial times youthful exuberance got the better of the group, most notably the mid-game capitulation against the Cheetahs.

A year on Smith is adamant the side is better equipped to ride out the rollercoaster that Super Rugby throws up.

He laments the loss of Cory Jane to injury but sees the return of last year's senior player group - the likes of Tim Bateman, Ben May, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush and Victor Vito - and the addition of Ben Franks, as a major strength.

Throw in Julian Savea, Andre Taylor, Brad Shields, Ardie Savea, Dane Coles, Perenara and Barrett and the mind starts to wonder. Playoffs at the least.

And so the Hurricanes are back at the start line. A team packed with potential, full of attacking threat and targeting the playoffs.

Close your eyes and Colin Cooper and Tana Umaga might just pop into view.

Only this time maybe it will be different. Maybe Hammett and Smith are the men to lead the Hurricanes to the promised land.

- The Dominion Post

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