FEATURE: Hurricanes search for fifth coach

10 Apr 2014
FEATURE: Hurricanes search for fifth coach

The news from Hurricanes headquarters that fourth-year coach Mark Hammett will not re-apply for the 2015 Super Rugby season means that the franchise will begin the long process to appoint their fifth head coach.

New Zealand media might have suggested this might have saved certain powers a potentially tough decision, but this is unfair considering the Hurricanes are beginning to mount a mini charge. They have secured three wins from their last four outings and stoked their typical reputation as being among the competition's most fearsome attacking teams.

Indeed, the legacy of Hammett has been that the raw offensive power of the Hurricanes has not diminished, and while that wild inconsistency that can make the team an absolute joy to watch remains - even if supporters might counter that this is mixed with a generous amount of frustration.

Rumour control – these are the facts…

-    Hammett had made the decision prior to the commencement of the season

-    Informed the players, including captain Conrad Smith, this week

-    Initial reports are that he will seek an overseas post, Cardiff recently saw coach Phil Davies resign

-    In 55 matches (including this season) Hammett has won 24 matches (up to Round 9)

-    37 players have made their 'Canes debut under Hammett, five have become All Blacks

Hammett has nine matches left with the Hurricanes, although reaching the team’s seventh Super Rugby Finals Series would extend this.

The former hooker, a four-time Super Rugby winner with the Crusaders while chalking up 81 matches, has also claimed two NPC titles (the current ITM Cup) in over 70 matches, which included two Ranfurly Shield reigns and eventually a call up to the All Blacks.

On the 26 June, 1999 Hammett made his full All Blacks Test debut against France in Wellington, and the then 26-year-old would go on to play a total of 29 internationals, scoring three tries, in an era where the likes of Anton Oliver, Keven Mealamu, Tom Willis, Corey Flynn and Andrew Hore were part of the selection frame.

With some irony, Hore made his debut in Super Rugby in 2001 for the Crusaders but the presence of Hammett kept his involvement limited to just six matches, before the Dunedin born hooker travelled to Wellington to represent the Hurricanes for 92 matches.

In 2011, Hammett moved to the capital to assume his first head coaching role, after five years as Crusaders assistant coach, a position he was promoted to after initially serving as a scrum mentor and forward’s advisor for the red and blacks.

Then on June 8 of that season, just after the Hurricanes had won their fifth game (and would not win again) in Round 16 against the Lions, Hammett announced to a small media throng after a training session that Hore and Ma’a Nonu would not have their contracts renewed.

And then Hammett’s world turned upside down.

A month later Aaron Cruden, now a two-time Super Rugby winner, left the Hurricanes to play under his Manawatu coach Dave Rennie, and roughly two weeks later Piri Weepu declared he would represent the Blues the following season.

In September, Hosea Gear revealed he would play in Highlanders colours, while three experienced forwards in Neemia Tialata, Rodney So’oialo and John Schwalger also packed their bags to move overseas.

It wasn’t all bad news though, with Cory Jane, Beauden Barrett and Conrad Smith committing to the team, and so the rebuild had begun.

It was the largest single turnover of All Blacks since the days that Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga called time on their Hurricanes careers.

At this point it is important to note that Hammett turned it around with dramatic speed, if a head coach is to earn criticism as the 41-year-old has throughout his tenure, he should also receive credit where credit is due.

The 2012 Super Rugby season saw the Hurricanes finish just two competition points from Super Rugby Finals Series qualification, and they were, with 489 points and 58 tries the most lethal attacking outfit.

Dane Coles, Julian Savea and Brenden Barrett would make their All Blacks debuts that year. 

All three are now considered front line Test players.

Jeremy Thrush and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen have since earned All Blacks caps, while TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea have spent time within New Zealand’s elite rugby environment even if they are to make their debuts.

Jack Lam, Samoa’s current Player of the Year and among the Hurricanes best this season, also made his entry into the Test arena.

The recruitment of Ben Franks was seen as a major coup, and while 2013 only yielded six wins – with five straight losses to end the regular campaign – this season has seen the Hurricanes prove they are anything but an insipid force.

One point out of the top six, the Hurricanes are equal top point’s scorers with 193 (= Blues) while they are equal top try scorers with 21 (= Chiefs) and dominate most of the tournament’s attack ledgers.

Breaks, carries, metres and beaten defenders have Mark Hammett’s team ranked as number one as we approach the halfway point of this season.

If he is to take the central blame for the Hurricanes failings, he deserves abundant credit for maintaining the lethality of their point's scoring power.

The departing coach has been linked to overseas positions immediately, but considering New Zealand Rugby’s stance on ensuring he remained within the local setup after overtures from the Rebels, Hammett could conceivably remain in the country.

Yet there will be demand for the former rake, the amount of intellectual property the coach holds would be worth it's weight in gold.

So who could be the Hurricanes coach for the 2015 season?

Robbie Deans – is the most successful Super Rugby coach of all time, but the Henry/Deans/All Blacks/Wallabies job situation and history might be a stumbling block in this potential reunion. However there is the carrot of Deans’ internal knowledge of the Australian Test setup and most of their key players.

Rob Penney – a four time ITM Cup winner with Canterbury, Penney had no opportunities in New Zealand so linked up with Munster, but despite some success he announced in February he would not take up a third-year option at the Irish club. He is a free agent in 2015.

John Plumtree – recently appointed forward’s coach of Ireland, the former Wellington and Sharks coach would appeal to the fiercely patriotic supporters from the capital, but Irish Rugby wouldn’t likely let their prized asset go lightly. A Six Nations title tends to do that.

Chris Boyd – current Wellington and New Zealand Under 20s coach is a warm favourite, he boasts plenty of experience including time in Durban, while last year he took the Lions to the top of the table in the ITM Cup Premiership regular season, even though his team lost to Canterbury in the decider.

Wayne Smith or Graham Henry – are names likely to be talked about, but Smith is unlikely to make an immediate shift to a North Island competitor in such circumstances, while the 2011 World Cup winning coach has been gradually stepping away from coaching duties, it would be unlikely he would take up a head role again.

Jason O’Halloran – a former son of Wellington and the Hurricanes, two years of experience at Kubota Spears and three seasons as Manawatu head coach is an early resume that might be overshadowed by other candidates.

Tana Umaga – within roughly seven minutes of the Hurricanes release, Counties-Manukau confirmed they would continue their beneficial relationship with the former All Blacks captain, effectively ruling out the former Toulon coach out, his pledge to the Steelers all but indicated he would not move from Pukekohe.

Peter Russell – Five years with Hawke’s Bay saw him shift to Newcastle after lack of chances in his own country, but his recent resignation from the Falcons could hint at a coaching move to Wellington.