William Hewett: Hurricanes dark-horses to end Crusaders’ Super Rugby title streak

OPINION: Super Rugby Aotearoa starts this week, with most pundits locking in the Crusaders or Blues for the 2021 title. 

And rightly so. On paper, both sides are stacked with talent and finished as the top two sides last season. 

But if one team can knock over the apple cart, it's the Hurricanes. This might surprise a few, but there's good reason for it. 

When the 'Canes were able to field their strongest line-up in 2020, they were the best team in the competition. They might lack star power all over the park, but in the key positions, they have x-factor and players that know how to win. 

Everyone will point to the inside backs as the weak point for the Hurricanes and there is no doubting that, but baring the Crusaders, no-one else is strong in those positions either. 

The Chiefs still don't know what their best 9/10 combination is, The Blues combination is good, but not spectacular - same with the Highlanders. 

Jackson Garden-Bachop will start at No.10 for the Hurricanes and the one thing he brings now is experience. He bided his time on the pine behind Beauden Barrett and after a 2020 season where he surely learned a lot, he is ready to take control of the ship.

True, he won’t be a World Player of the Year like the Hurricanes used to have at first-five, but one thing he does have now is experience. He is used to playing in all the big games and has guided his side to a number of important results in 2020. 

The Hurricanes also have a new leader in Ardie Savia and he's out to prove himself as captain material. He'll lead by example and he'll get his teammates in behind, which is one of a leader’s most important traits. 

New Zealand's best leaders, like Richie McCaw, Kane Williamson, Brendon McCullum and Kieran Read, have had that follow-me style of leadership. 

Savea may not be in that class yet, but he certainly has the style and temperament to be a successful captain. 

His hard-working, dogged style of play will motivate his teammates and take them to the next level, which will be crucial for the Hurricanes. 

Jordie Barrett
Jordie Barrett Photo credit: Photosport

The key player for Wellington will be Jordie Barrett. He supplies the x-factor and a point of difference to the side that is so dearly needed. 

He also provides a sense of calmness in pressure situations and after being around the All Blacks for the past four years, he's gained valuable insight on what to do in the championship moments. 

When Barrett was on the park last season, the Hurricanes proved they were the best team in the competition. 

After he returned from injury in round four, after the Hurricanes started with back-to-back loses, they beat the Chiefs twice, Highlanders, Blues and ended the Crusaders’ four-year home record at Orangetheory Stadium, before losing to the Highlanders in an empty stadium in a dead-rubber game. 

So if Barrett can stay fit, that will go a long way towards bringing a second Super Rugby title to the capital and the first since 2016.

The ‘Canes also have the competition’s most talked about player in Salesi Rayasi. After a blockbuster Mitre 10 Cup campaign for Auckland, where he was the leading tryscorer and tore opposition defences to shreds, the wing is ready to cement a spot in the starting side. 

Salesi Rayas
Salesi Rayasi Photo credit: Photosport

Just how the Hurricanes use him has yet to be seen, but if Rayasi can replicate his Mitre 10 Cup form, he could be the next breakout star. 

The big question mark hanging over the Hurricanes is how they replace TJ Perenara. Not helping that predicament is the long-term injury to back-up halfback Jamie Booth, who will likely miss the entire campaign. 

Perenara's leadership, experience and determination to bring success to the capital will be sorely missed. 

The task will be tough for the men from the capital of course, but they know how to win. 

They broke the Crusaders’ home streak in 2020 - and they’re the last team to win Super Rugby before the southerners went on their four-year title streak. 

William Hewett is a Newshub online sports producer - and one-eyed Wellingtonian