Defence will win the battle of entertainers

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2013

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Andre Taylor
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PACE TO BURN: Fullback Andre Taylor is one third of a potent Hurricanes' back three.

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Matching the Blues' firepower shouldn't be a major problem, but then again that's not the issue for the Hurricanes as they kick off their Super Rugby campaign at Westpac Stadium tonight.

It's hard not to get excited about a match that pits two teams brimming with attacking threats, particularly in the backs.

The recipe for entertainment seems simple.

Throw Hurricanes wing Julian Savea, fullback Andre Taylor and centre Conrad Smith into an enclosed arena, match them with Blues opposites Frank Halai, Charles Piutau and Rene Ranger, and set the element to high.

But then the problem for these Hurricanes has never been returning fire - it's defending.

"Yeah, we don't know," first five-eighth Beauden Barrett said this week when quizzed on last year's leaky defence.

"We seem to score a lot of points and leak a lot of points. It's just the way the games have gone. I'm not too sure why that is. You can't nail it to one thing."

Barrett's right on one count.

There were no individuals on whom to pin the unenviable tag of worst defence in Super Rugby last season.

But there were some areas the opposition attacked, most often a shaky scrum that had the Hurricanes on the back foot against better sides.

Which - strangely, considering the talent on show - is where their opening match of 2013 will be won and lost.

Off-season recruit Ben Franks has joined a deep and promising propping stable. There were no alarm bells when Jeffery Toomaga-Allen was ruled out of the match with concussion.

Experienced Ben May starts at tight-head with Franks on the other side of All Black rake Dane Coles.

The Blues, on the other hand, are an unknown quantity up front, where loose head Tom McCartney is a converted hooker and James Parsons a relative rookie.

Behind a steady and dominant set piece, Barrett and halves partner TJ Perenara will be happy men.

And so will the Hurricanes' paymasters if Franks can steel up the one obvious weak point from last season.

Barrett believes the Hurricanes backs can step things up a notch with the benefit of a full year behind their combinations.

"With Timmy [Bateman], Conrad and TJ, we know each other's style of play now and that's got to be a good thing," he said. "It does [make a difference] because we have that understanding of what we're looking at on attack.

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"When different opportunities arise we can nail down the detail . . . knowing the better options to take, reading defences and feeding that information back."

Those expecting an easy start for the Hurricanes should think again.

Coach John Kirwan appears to have this Blues side pumped in a similar mould to last year's Hurricanes and his knightly sidekick, Graham Henry, is sure to have fine-tuned the defence.

What they lack in experience will be made up for in energy. Expect No 8 Peter Saili and big wing Halai to carry the ball early and hard at the Hurricanes inside backs.

If they can get behind the Hurricanes' defence, halfback Piri Weepu will be dangerous against a side he knows only too well.

Opensides Karl Lowe and Luke Braid should have a ding-dong battle and fullbacks Taylor and Charles Piutau are sure to be tempted into counterattack by some early kicks.

Whoever runs into the most disciplined chase line and determined defence will likely be the man on the losing team in what shapes as a closer game than many are predicting.

The Hurricanes won both of the matches between the sides last year.

Venue: Westpac Stadium

Live: Sky Sport 1, 7.35pm

TAB: Hurricanes $1.42, Blues $2.70

Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)

Hurricanes: Andre Taylor, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields, Karl Lowe, Victor Vito, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Ben May, Dane Coles, Ben Franks. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Reggie Goodes, Mark Reddish, Faifili Levave, Chris Smylie, James Marshall, Reynold Lee-Lo.

Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Tom McCartney. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Angus Ta'avao, Liaki Moli, Brendon O'Connor, Bryn Hall, Baden Kerr, Jackson Willison. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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