Conrad Smith has hit back at the doomsayers.
The Hurricanes captain isn't ready to label his team's season a success just yet, but after beating the Bulls in Napier on Saturday, he said he hoped the critics could see some positives.
"You don't have to go back far to where we were copping a lot of criticism, which I thought was unfair at the time, but we knew, we had a lot of faith in ourselves. We stuck to what we were doing and we've reaped the rewards," he said after a gritty 25-20 win.
The Hurricanes' third win in four weeks has lifted them to second in the New Zealand conference and eighth overall as they eye a decisive Good Friday clash with the Blues in Wellington on April 18.
Smith said the vitriol directed at coach Mark Hammett and the team after the opening three losses of the season to the Sharks, Stormers and Brumbies, had been "over the top".
"The good thing was we had a lot of experience in the team to deal with it. For me there was probably only 20 minutes out of those three games where we let ourselves down. There was actually still a lot of good stuff.
"Looking back, it was a really tough start. Playing the Sharks first up when they'd already had a game, then a Brumbies side who I think we've seen are a very, very good team. They were runners-up last year and I could see that [being a tough game] coming.
"We knew . . . we'd turn the results around. It's a tough competition and we were never far off. Now we're getting across the line which is good.
"There is still a long way to go but it's nice to at least be in a position where we can look at challenging for a playoff spot."
It's probably a few weeks too early for such lofty ambitions and Ben Franks' groin injury is sure to cause angst over the bye week.
But Smith has solid evidence to support his optimism. The Hurricanes' 21 tries are equalled only by the Chiefs and they lead Super Rugby in line breaks, defenders beaten and metres made. Moreover they are ironing out some of the chinks in their armour, both tactically and at set piece.
It's not perfect. The Bulls' two tries were both soft, and handling issues of past losses re-emerged in the slippery conditions.
But twice now the Hurricanes have come from behind, under pressure, to ice matches against quality opponents.
They have simplified their game to become more direct in attack. Alapati Leiua was a success at second five-eighth but for some handling issues, while wing Julian Savea's regular injection in midfield was a smart play.
Crucially, the kick-chase also improved with high kicks recovered and grubbers pressured or regathered to good effect.
Most encouraging was the performance of a scrum that dominated the Bulls. Tighthead prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen bounced back from his early-season struggles and lock James Broadhurst played to his potential for the second week running.
Throw in Jack Lam's continuing form at openside, the successful return of Victor Vito and Brad Shields, a lineout defence that blunted the Bulls' rolling maul and Andre Taylor's confidence at fullback, and there was much to like in Napier.
"We've worked out what we're good at and focused in on that rather than worrying so much about work-ons," Smith said. "We still know our weaknesses and work on them, but we realise if we play with tempo teams find it hard to stick with us. That gives you confidence you have a type of game to compete with the best teams in the competition."
- Fairfax Media
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