With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon, we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Hurricanes!
They enter 2014 as fourth favourites for the New Zealand conference but there is always that feeling of optimism when viewing their personnel.
Last year: A disappointing season started with two defeats, against the Blues and Reds, before a home win over the Crusaders looked like being a platform on which to build. They followed that up with victories at the Highlanders, Kings and Waratahs, which put them in a good position approaching the middle of the season. Then came a period of inconsistent form that ultimately did for any hopes they had of reaching the knockout stages. Not having Cory Jane due to injury was a blow while Andre Taylor struggled to follow up 2012's electric form and one just sensed they did not have the complete game to move on to the next level. Mentions though for TJ Perenara and Julian Savea, who crossed seven times but in the end their defence - conceding 457 points that included 49 tries - ultimately cost them against their more watertight rivals.
This year: A bold statement maybe, but on paper a fully fit Hurricanes starting line-up is capable of beating anyone this term. A backline of Perenara, Barrett, Savea, Bateman, Smith, Leuia, Jane will cause teams problems while their back-row group has for a long time been impressive. Expect this to be the proper breakthrough season of Ardie Savea on the openside after being looked after last season, while Jack Lam, Brad Shields, Faifili Levave and Victor Vito all offer variety to Mark Hammett. Further forward, the loss of Jason Eaton is a blow but Jeremy Thrush and James Broadhurst will do a job while the front-row has real depth at hooker and also either side. As I say, on paper they look promising.
Sense there was a 'but'? You'd be right. Consistency in performance has for a long time been the problem at Westpac Stadium and the ten defeats from eighteen games last year says it all. Granted they are in a difficult conference - with the Chiefs and Crusaders dominating New Zealand last season - but more is expected from both coach Hammett and 'Canes supporters in 2014, particularly after failing to improve on their ten wins in 2012.
I've confidence though that a maturing Perenara-Barrett axis alongside a refreshed Smith and Jane will create enough to trouble rivals, but it's whether they get front-foot ball and if their set-piece performs against play-off rivals that is the doubt. Patience is running out.
Key players: An understated yet pivotal part of the All Blacks' 100 percent year in 2013 was Beauden Barrett. Key coming off the bench throughout and able to counter from full-back or create from fly-half, he has all the tools to become a great international and Super Rugby player. The Hurricanes will need him in top form if they are break the stranglehold the Chiefs and Crusaders currently have in the conference. But if he clicks with Perenara and the two Saveas, Ardie and Julian, punish teams, there is a play-off chance. A big year also awaits for Dane Coles as he looks to cement New Zealand's two jersey ahead of the World Cup.
Noteworthy signings: Mark Abbott (Hawke's Bay), Marty Banks (Tasman), Hadleigh Parkes (Kings), Cardiff Vaega (Southland)
Noteworthy losses: Ben May (Fukuoka Sanix Blues), Jason Eaton (NTT Shining Arcs), Karl Lowe (Canon Eagles), Samisoni Fisilau (released), Tusi Pisi (Suntory Sungoliath), Rey Lee-Lo (Crusaders), Ope Peleseuma (released)
Prospects: Starts don't come much tougher than the card the Hurricanes have been dealt as a trip to South Africa awaits, starting in Durban before heading to Cape Town. A glass half full approach would lean towards the 'better to play them early' argument which is a decent way for 'Canes fans to approach the games before they stay in New Zealand until, wait for it, May 3! An improved year to put them in and around the play-off mix is possible.
Feb 22: v Sharks, away
Feb 28: v Stormers, away
Mar 7: v Brumbies, home
Mar 15: v Cheetahs, home
Mar 21: v Highlanders, away
Mar 28: v Crusaders, away
Apr 5: v Bulls, home
Week 9: Bye
Apr 18: v Blues, home
Apr 26: v Reds, home
May 3: v Waratahs, away
May 9: v Rebels, away
May 16: v Highlanders, home
May 24: v Chiefs, home
May 31: v Blues, away
Jun 28: v Crusaders, home
Jul 4: v Chiefs, away
Week 19: Bye
By Adam Kyriacou