Super Rugby – Hurricanes

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Born out of the advent of professional rugby at the end of 1995, nine New Zealand provincial rugby unions came together to form the Wellington Hurricanes for the start of the inaugural Super 12 competition in 1996. The Wellington, Taranaki, Manawatu, Hawke’s Bay, East Coast, Poverty Bay, Wanganui, Wairarapa-Bush and Horowhenua-Kapiti unions all formed the Hurricanes region. The new franchise was the largest of the five in New Zealand, representing 920,000 people and has provided 20 seasons of spectacular highlights.

The Hurricanes played the very first Super 12 match in 1996 against the Blues in Palmerston North and centre Alama Ieremia scored the competition’s first try. Although the Hurricanes lost 28-36 and won just three of 11 matches in the first year against Transvaal, the Highlanders and the Chiefs, the foundations had been laid.

The second season in 1997 was the year the Hurricanes lit up the Super 12. Developing their own brand of ‘ruck and run rugby’ they galloped into the semi-finals for the first time on the back of a series of exhilarating wins. These included big wins over the Bulls in New Plymouth and the Cheetahs and Highlanders in Wellington, while Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga scored 23 tries between them during the year. 30,400 people packed Athletic Park to see the team defeated narrowly by the Brumbies in the last round, the team they missed out to in the semi-final a a week later in Canberra.

Captain Hurricane joined as the Hurricanes’ mascot in 1998 and the side picked up from where they left off the previous season with three consecutive wins, before slipping to eighth. The first two of these victories were in Cape Town and Pretoria, meaning the Hurricanes became the first team to come away from South Africa with the maximum 10 points. They also became the first New Zealand team to defeat the Brumbies in Canberra, a match in which they also lost their founding captain Mark ‘Bull’ Allen to a career ending neck injury.

After slipping to tenth in 1999 and flattering to deceive under the new motto ‘Expect the Unexpected’, 2000’s eighth placed finish was hugely disappointing after spending much of the competition among the frontrunners. New coaches Graham Mourie and Bryan Willams, a new waterfront stadium in Wellington, a name change to the Hurricanes from the ‘Wellington’ Hurricanes and the signing of All Blacks superstar Jonah Lomu all boded well for a change in fortunes. They opened the season with a 40-23 win over the Sharks at the new venue and won six from their first ten matches including a 28-22 win over the eventual champions Crusaders. But missing Lomu, Umaga and prop Gordon Slater, they lost their last two matches of the season in South Africa to the Stormers and Bulls and slipped from third to eighth in the last weekend of round-robin play.

With records of five wins and six losses in both 2001 and 2002, the Hurricanes finished ninth in each of thee seasons, but then rebounded in 2003 to make the semi-finals for the first time since 1997. Taranaki and assistant Crusaders coach Colin Cooper took over the head coaching reins in 2003 and appointed Tana Umaga captain, a liaison that brought immediate success. The team lost its first two games to the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Bulls in Napier, but came back to win seven in a row to qualify third. Travelling away to play the Crusaders for the second time in the season, they were defeated 16-39 in the semi-final. Another positive move in 2003 was the team’s relocation to its new permanent training base in Newtown in Wellington, while the team farewelled their record try scorer Christian Cullen (56 tries) to Ireland after the semi-final.

2004 wasn’t to be a vintage year for the Hurricanes who finished eleventh with just four victories. Although if their 20-21 loss to the Sharks and 26-all draw with the Blues the following week had been wins then they would have comfortably finished mid-table.

This was followed by a stellar 2005. With a dozen new players in the squad the Hurricanes won eight and lost three and reached the semi-finals of the last ever Rebel Sport Super 12 before its expansion to a 14-team competition from 2006. The team was unbeaten in its tour of Australia and South Africa and a successful new leadership structure was put in place that had a positive influence on the team environment and culture. Umaga became the first Hurricanes player to reach a century of appearances, celebrating a first ever win over the Blues in his 100th game. Once again though they lost at the semi-final stage in Christchurch to the Crusaders.

2006 was the Hurricanes’ best ever season, reaching the final of the first Super 14. Under new captain Rodney So’oialo the Hurricanes won eleven games from 15 played, with highlights being the their first ever win at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria against the Bulls, wins in consecutive weeks over the Waratahs, including a 16-14 semi-final victory over them at Westpac Stadium, and the try scoring of right winger Lome Fa’atau who led the competition with ten tries.

Unfortunately the final against the Crusaders was ruined as a spectacle with a pall of mist descending on AMI Stadium in Christchurch. The Crusaders scored the game’s only try to take the title 19-12. Long-serving first five-eighth David Holwell finally hung up his Huricanes boots at the end of 2006 after scoring a team record 676 points in his 76 matches from 1998-2004 and 2006.

Once more came the relative lows in 2007 after the highs of the previous season’s success. They faced an uphill battle from the start, deprived of six All Blacks for the first seven rounds who were all held back in the Rugby World Cup ‘reconditioning’ squad and finished eighth. They did however achieve several excellent wins at Westpac Stadium, including a memorable defeat of eventual champions the Bulls.Umaga, lock Paul Tito, Lome Fa’atau and lock/flanker Luke Andrews all played their final games for the Hurricanes together in the final game of the season in Wellington against the Waratahs.

The Hurricanes reached the semi-finals once more in 2008, for the fifth time and fourth time in six seasons under the coaching of Cooper. Once more they played the Crusaders in Christchurch in the knockout stages and again were defeated, this time 22-33. Ma’a Nonu was the star of the backline scoring seven tries in 11 games, while hooker Andrew Hore led the forwards with a super consistent year. The 2008 Super 14 season was also one of change, played under the new IRB Experimental Law Variations (ELVS). Popular loose forward Jerry Collins also left for overseas at the end of 2008 after 85 matches and eight seasons.

The Hurricanes finished a credible third at the end of the 2009 round-robin series, the fifth time in the past seven seasons that they had made the top four. But like three out of four of these recent playoff seasons before them, they failed to progress to the final, losing to the Chiefs 10-14 in Hamilton. Their season record of nine wins from 13 round robin games was their second best ever in terms of wins in the round-robin stage, behind 2006 when they had 10 victories from 13 round robin matches. In 2009 The Hurricanes were the leading attacking side at the end of the round-robin, ending the season with 390 points and exactly 50 tries for the year. Individually, Ma’a Nonu was the competition’s leading try-scorer with nine tries.

2010 was the final year in charge of the Hurricanes for Head Coach Colin Cooper, who bowed out after eight years and 104 games at the helm. Cooper had guided the team to the playoffs in 2003, 2005, 2006 (final), 2008 and 2009. The season also brought an end to the Hurricanes career of current Operations Manager and former Manager Tony Bedford, a foundation member of the Hurricanes Management and 15-time South African tourist.

The franchise’s 2010 campaign was a roller coaster one. The franchise won its first three games, lost the next four – all to South African opposition – launched a four-game winning streak, then dipped out of contention in the last game where a win over the Waratahs would have been enough to reach the semi-finals again.

Andrew Hore took over the captaincy for 2010 from Rodney So’oialo who had led the team to the playoffs three times since 2006. It was also a notable year for some members of the squad: So’oialo becoming the second Hurricanes player to reach 100 games for the franchise and Conrad Smith, John Schwalger and Tamati Ellison also reaching the milestone of 50 games.

Their season record was won seven, lost five and drawn one in 13 matches. Winger David Smith was the leading try scorer with seven tries and halfback Piri Weepu the leading points scorer with 75. Four players – hooker Hore, prop Tialata, lock/flanker Michael Paterson and second five-eighth Nonu – started in every match 2010, while a fifth, prop John Schwalger, played in every match (twice off the bench).

2011 was another year of change off the field and a difficult season results-wise on it. The Hurricanes had a new Head Coach, Canterbury’s Mark Hammett a former Crusaders Super Rugby-winning and All Blacks Test hooker.

Leaky defence and poor on-field discipline by senior players were key themes for the Hurricanes in 2011, who won five and drew two of their 16 matches in the first year of the new expanded 15-team competition and associated Conference system and six-team playoffs series. The Hurricanes finished ninth overall and fourth in the New Zealand Conference.

The Hurricanes would concede 40 points on four occasions and yellow cards would play a big part in losses to the Highlanders, Blues (twice) and Sharks. The campaign also suffered from a stuttering start, not of their doing; the Christchurch earthquake and an early bye meant they played just once in the first month. Nevertheless, there were some memorable wins in 2011, including beating the the eventual champions the Reds 28-26 in Wellington and beating (29-26) and drawing with (18-18) the overall regular season winners the Chiefs in two matches.

The final match, the rescheduled ‘away’ fixture against the Crusaders was played at Westpac Stadium in Wellington and was the last game for the Hurricanes of long- serving players, Andrew Hore, midfielder Ma’a Nonu, props Neemia Tialata and John Schwalger (to return later in 2013), wing Hosea Gear and halfback Piri Weepu. Captain Hore and Nonu had both reached 100 games for the Hurricanes during the season.

2012 saw a much improved Hurricanes season and one in which they finished just outside the playoffs in eighth place but just two points away from qualification. The Hurricanes headed into their last round match against the Chiefs still hopeful of a playoff berth but just missed out despite winning this match 28-25. There were several close matches in the season, such as their 26-25 win over the Blues in Eden Park after a breakout try with the last play of the game and a 23-22 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch.

2012 will be remembered for some of the thrilling attacking rugby that the team played, scoring a franchise record 58 tries in 16 matches. But it was also the six losses in these 10 matches that saw them miss out on the playoffs.

Individually, there were several breakout seasons by some players. First five-eighth Beauden Barrett had a stellar debut season, as did halfback TJ Perenara and prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen. Fullback Andre Taylor sparked much of their attacking play from the back and scored 10 tries himself. Other players to play well in 2012 included hooker Dane Coles, who later made the All Blacks for the first time, wing Cory Jane and captain and centre Conrad Smith who in December won the New Zealand Rugby Super Rugby Player of the Award at the annual end of the season Awards.

In 2013, the franchise struggled to build on their gains made the previous season, resulting in another season finishing off the pace.

Once again, leaky defence let them down again at crucial times throughout the campaign while their attack failed to fire like it had in 2012. In conceding 49 tries at over 28 points per game, the Hurricanes finished the season in 11th overall and fourth in the New Zealand Conference.

There was hope early in the season when they beat the Crusaders and then won their next three matches as well. But further losses left them realistically needing to win all their final three matches after the month-long international break to make the playoffs. Losses to the Chiefs, the Highlanders and the Crusaders meant ended these hopes.

Despite this, there were many bright spots to ensure that season 2014 will be one of success, with several players having strong seasons. The Hurricanes welcomed Ben Franks from the Crusaders and he shored up the front row, while lock Jeremy Thrush had his best season to date and won selection in the All Blacks for their mid-year Tests. In the halves, TJ Perenara and Barrett were again key players, while wings Julian Savea and Alapati Leiua were always dangerous. Losing All Blacks wing Cory Jane at the start of the season didn’t help their cause either.

Eight new faces have been named in the Hurricanes squad for 2014, including four new additions to the team’s wider training group.

The Hurricanes have 26 players returning from the 2013 season, with the addition of newcomers Mark Abbott, Marty Banks, Cardiff Vaega and Hadleigh Parkes. Prop John Schwalger also makes a return to Super Rugby after a successful ITM Cup campaign with the Ricoh Wellington Lions, while former wider training group member Ash Dixon steps into the 32-man squad.

Manawatu’s Callum Gibbons will undergo his second year within the wider training group, and will be joined by teammates Chris Eves and Nehe Milner-Skudder. Tasman halfback Billy Guyton has also been included in the wider squad, along with Wellington loose forward, Adam Hill.

Wing Nehe Milner-Skudder emerged as not only one of the Hurricanes star players, but also forcing his way into the All Blacks World Cup squad and playing an influential part in their historic Webb Ellis Trophy success in England.

First five Beauden Barrett dazzled on a weekly basis and scored 121 points, James Broadhurst displayed freakish athleticism, halfback TJ Perenara scorched in for 11 tries, and Julian Savea steamrolled his way to eight.

But for all the individual highlights, 2015 was defined by the Hurricanes collective efforts. Rarely has the club seen such a united and cohesive side.

Under first year coach Chris Boyd and his assistant John Plumtree the squad won 14 of 16 matches in a magical run to the Super Rugby final, their first appearance in the season finale since 2006.

It was a dream run for the Hurricanes fans, who packed into Westpac Stadium for a home semifinal against the Brumbies, then a final against the Highlanders.

The Brumbies were dispatched 29-9 with the Savea brothers Julian and Ardie, Perenara and wing Matt Proctor all scoring tries to send the crowd into raptures. Unfortunately, the fairy tale finish wasn’t to be as the Hurricanes lost a heart stopping final the following week, 21-14 to the Highlanders.

The loss was a blow for departing Hurricanes veterans Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Jeremy Thrush, but their final season with the club was a memorable one nonetheless.

Centre Smith led the team with class and poise and inside him Nonu was a juggernaut at second five all season. Lock Thrush, along with another departing player, prop Ben Franks, was a picture of consistency as he led a pack that finished the year as one of the most respected units in the competition.

Behind the engine room Brad Shields and Victor Vito were tough as teak and Ardie Savea and Callum Gibbins both superb at openside.

Prop Reg Goodes and loose forward Blade Thomson rose further, Dane Coles and Motu Matu’u ably shared the hooking duties and props Chris Eves and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen provided punch off the bench.

Julian Savea was a menace out wide and the experience of Cory Jane and James Marshall provided much needed direction and tactical nous.

History was made in 2016 as the Hurricanes broke a 21-year drought to win the Investec Super Rugby trophy for the first time.

The season finale saw heroic captain Dane Coles lift the trophy above his head after a comprehensive 20-3 win over the Lions from South Africa.

The fairy tale finish unfolded in front of a sold out crowd at Westpac Stadium, a ground the club and fans had dubbed Our House for the final, sparking emotional scenes including No.8 Victor Vito’s farewell speech after his 100th match for the club.

The final was the culmination of a season that buried the ghosts of past seasons including the 2016 finals loss to the Highlanders at the same venue.

It was a first Super Rugby title for coaches Chris Boyd and John Plumtree too as they plotted a near flawless campaign that saw the Hurricanes lose just four regular season matches before sweeping aside the Sharks and Chiefs in the quarterfinal and semi-final respectively.

The Hurricanes rock solid defence was the stuff of legends as they kept their try line in tact at Westpac Stadium through all three home playoff matches.

The season had not started well with a 52-10 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra prompting Australian commentator Phil Kearns to infamously suggest the team were “fat, slow and unfit.”

Kearns could not have been further off the mark.

There were plenty of Hurricanes heroes in 2016, but few as obvious as Coles who lead the team into the final despite cracking the cartilage in his ribs during the quarterfinal and sitting out the semi-final.

During the season it was halves TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, along with fullback James Marshall who ran the show. Barrett finished with 223 points including nine tries, Perenara barked orders and directed play, and Marshall provided a bit of everything at the back.

Openside Ardie Savea was the star in the pack where he hustled all season, prop Loni “The Tongan Bear” Uhila became a cult figure, Michael Fatialofa emerged as a genuine star in the second row, and wing Jason Woodward stood tall in the playoffs.

The result was a maiden title, euphoric scenes at Westpac Stadium, and a memorable trophy tour throughout the Hurricanes region.