Home advantage makes the Hurricanes slight favourites but few expected the Super Rugby final to return to Wellington at the start of the year.
In fact scratch ‘few’, practically nobody predicted we’d see Chris Boyd’s men back in the final having been shredded 52-10 by a bullish Brumbies outfit in Canberra on the opening weekend.
The departures of a number of senior players left the Hurricanes screaming out for new leaders to step up. TJ Perenara and Victor Vito have done that. Cory Jane too, and of course Dane Coles.
But it’s taken some time, and that’s because this team is far different to the side which on paper looked so impressive down the stretch to the 2015 final, only to fall at the last hurdle.
Of course the Hurricanes still have big names – there arguably isn’t a better player on the planet right now than Beauden Barrett – but the story of their season has been the emergence of new faces.
Coles’ absence from the semi-final was billed as a disaster, only for Ricky Riccitelli to produce an outstanding display. Vaea Fifita and Michael Fatialofa, tasked with replacing long-time lock pairing Jeremy Thrush and James Broadhurst, have been industrious, with Fifita showing on more than one occasion a taste for long-range tries.
None of the centres used by the Hurricanes offer the same stability or class as Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, and yet Willis Halaholo, Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor have all stepped up.
The conveyor belt has kept churning out gems. Time and again over the years sides have struggled to make the transition from experienced veterans to new faces and it’s a testament to the depth in both Wellington and New Zealand rugby, and also to the coaching of Boyd and John Plumtree, that the Hurricanes have made it back to the final at the first time of asking with only six survivors from last year’s defeat (Coles, Brad Shields, Vito, Perenara, Barrett and James Marshall).
The build-up ahead of last year’s final centred on the departures of those aforementioned star players and on the fitness of Ardie Savea. Looking back there were too many distractions, the main one being a sense of finality at the end of golden career in yellow for Smith especially.
There is ample pressure again given that the Hurricanes have been able to sit in Wellington over the last two weeks waiting for teams to travel to Westpac Stadium before dispatching them, and with the Lions having to make the historically winless crossing of the Indian Ocean to play in a Super Rugby final, the review of another Hurricanes final defeat would be long and painful.
However balancing that out is the sense that the Hurricanes feel settled, a world away from trying to picking up the pieces of that half-century thumping back in Round 1.
Suggestions that their entertaining brand of rugby wouldn’t hold up in poor conditions were washed away in that 41-0 demolition of the Sharks, and they’ll be tasked with repeating that level of excellence in what appears set to be a wet night in the Cake Tin.
Stick the Hurricanes in a blizzard though and you sense they would be alright. After two Super Rugby final losses, this could well be their time.