Super Rugby Pacific: Hurricanes address hooking crisis, after suffering first defeat of season against ACT Brumbies

Hurricanes coach Clark Laidlaw is taking a positive outlook over his team's first defeat of their Super Rugby Pacific campain, but faces a worsening selection headache in his front row.

The Wellingtonians tumbled 27-19 to ACT Brumbies at Canberra, barely retaining their position atop the competition table by a single point from the Blues.

They conceded 17 unanswered points in the first half to trail 24-12 at the break and could not dig themselves out of that hole over the second 40 minutes.

James O'Reilly at Hurricanes training.
James O'Reilly at Hurricanes training. Photo credit: Getty Images

Less than half an hour into the contest, Hurricanes hooker James O'Reilly left for a concussion check and did not return, leaving rookie Ray Tuputupu to complete the game in his place.

"It was pretty obvious he was concussed," observed Laidlaw. "He failed his HIA [Head Injury Assessment], so he'll go through the protocols, but with a six-day turnaround, he'll not be available for next week.

"We'll need to find another hooker somewhere in New Zealand."

The Hurricanes' hooking problems began when they lost Hawke's Bay No.2 Jacob Devery to a season-ending injury before the campaign even began.

In-form fringe All Black Asafo Aumua was helped off the field against Fijian Druan last week with a knee injury expected to keep him sidelined for 6-8 weeks, while O'Reilly's plight leaves the cupboard quite bare.

Last week, Laidlaw admitted he had put out an SOS to former All Black Dane Coles, who retired at last year's Rugby World Cup, but extended his career to take up a short-term contract with Kubota Spears in Japan.

"Yeah, we called him," said Laidlaw. "I’m not sure if he was surprised or keen, but we certainly put a call out to see how he was getting on."

Unfortunately, Coles, 37, had also tweaked a hamstring and was unavailable to take up the offer.

Tuputupu, 21, has played for NZ U20s, but made his Super Rugby debut as a teenager, after the Hurricanes were stretched at the position during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was summoned into the gameday squad hours before kickoff against the Highlanders in 2022, logging five minutes at the end.

The Manawatu front-rower lasted much longer against the Brumbies.

Despite the talent available at hooker, the Hurricanes have often found themselves searching for anyone with a pulse in recent seasons, especially as Coles was nursed towards his career swansong.

Prop Xavier Numia scores a try against the Brumbies.
Prop Xavier Numia scores a try against the Brumbies. Photo credit: Getty Images

Last year, they turned to Auckland-born Italian international Hame Faiva to fill the void, adding to an already colourful CV that also included a 2017 stint with the Blues. He is currently contracted to Bath in the Gallagher Premiership.  

Laidlaw insists the defeat will help his team in the long term.

"It's exciting," he said. "The Brumbies are a quality team and it felt like a playoff game.

"If you're going to win the competition, you'll have to beat teams like the Brumbies, the Waratahs and the Blues, which is today, next week and the week after.

"We knew this was a tricky period, with the Chiefs, the Drua away and the Brumbies away, so I'm really excited about what we can learn from this and what we take into the Waratahs game next week."