OPINION: Hurricanes job is a two-horse race

Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper will stepdown at the end of the season

WITH long-serving coach Colin Cooper moving on after next season, the search is on to find his successor at the Hurricanes.

Whoever steps into the breach will have huge boots to fill. After all, Cooper, who is the second longest serving Super rugby coach behind former Crusaders maestro Robbie Deans, has easily been the most successful mentor the ‘Canes have had in their 15-year existence.

While he has failed to bring any silverware to the capital, Cooper has done a remarkable job of transforming an exceptionally gifted and talented – but often ill-disciplined, erratic and inconsistent – bunch of players into a consistent force that can challenge for the championship and is usually there or thereabouts come the business end of the season.

Four semi final appearances – including a final (the infamous ‘Battle of the Fog’) in 2006 – in six years speaks for itself and shows how far the team has come from the token playoff experience they had between 1996 and 2002, a time when the Hurricanes promised much, but ultimately failed to deliver despite having all the strike power in the world.

But the time has come for the 50-year-old to move aside. He has probably achieved everything he is ever going to with the team and if they are to push on and finally win the elusive trophy, some new ideas and direction are needed.

Fortunately the region is flush with quality coaches within its ranks, with three candidates – Dave Rennie, Peter Russell and Jamie Joseph – in the running to inherit the reigns at the Wellington-based franchise.

Jamie Joseph

Joseph is an up-and-coming coach with a big future. He is highly regarded in rugby circles and has shown he’s got the goods, the no-nonsense task master guiding the Wellington Lions to back-to-back Air New Zealand Cup finals and ending the city’s 26-year Ranfurly Shield drought – something this scribe will be forever grateful for, I must add! He was also assistant coach of the New Zealand Maoris in 2006.

But there is a feeling that while the former All Black flanker may have the backing of the Hurricanes board, he is too young thrown into the Super rugby caldron and would probably benefit with a few more years cutting his teeth on the provincial scene or as an assistant coach at one of New Zealand’s franchises to gain more experience.

That essentially means the road to finding Cooper’s successor is a two-horse race. In the blue corner we have Hawke’s Bay’s Russell, while fighting out of the red corner, representing Manawatu, is Rennie.

Both  have worked their way up the ranks, crafted impressive track records and have the mana to do the job justice.

Lets run the comb over the two applicants, starting with Russell.

It’s fair to say this man possess the Midas touch judging by the polished, comprehensive and strong resume he a crafted over the years, something that will work in his favour.

Peter Russell

Peter Russell

He guided Marist St Pats to four Jubilee Cup finals appearances in the Wellington club competition, winning three titles in the process, and tasted NPC third division and Meads Cup success with Wairarapa-Bush in 2005 and 06 respectively.

There are also stints with the New Zealand Divisional/Heartland XV and as Glenn Moore’s assistant at the Highlanders, a role he will resume in the ‘Edinburgh of the South’ later this year.

But it is with Hawke’s Bay where Russell has shown his wares. In fact, there is much to like about how he has gone about his work with Hawkeye guys.

After stepping into the breach in 2007, Russell used his nous over the past three seasons to work wonders with a bunch of middle of the road players.

Indeed, three semi final appearances in three years, victories over Super 14 bases Waikato (four), Otago (twice), Auckland and Wellington, a fortress at McLean Park – which have become a graveyard for opposition teams – and a whole heap of Super 14 players is a good return and a throwback to the unions glory days of the 1920s and 60s.

He has also introduced and nurtured some future stars of New Zealand rugby during his time with the Magpies, with three of them – Zac Guildford, Bryn Evans and Hika Elliot – having gone on to wear the black jersey, while at leaste two others (Israel Dagg and Karl Lowe) are likely to do so in the future.

Dave Rennie

Like his counterpart, Rennie has also played an influential role in developing and unearthing future talent or ‘cattle’, a term he uses often to describe his playing stock, courtesy of his work at Murray Mexted’s International Rugby Academy and New Zealand under-20 side (read: Aaron Cruden, Andre Taylor, Kade Poki, Sean Maitland and Robbie Robinson, to name but a few).

The former Wellington midfielder has also helped Manawatu go from backwater status to a point where it is at least competitive in the ANZC after answering an SOS in 2006 at the eleventh hour.

While the Turbos have finished no higher than eleventh on the competition ladder, victories over Otago, Canterbury and Southland, a draw against Waikato and a close losses to Auckland and Hawke’s Bay in recent seasons show the team is far cry from the one that looked like it would struggle to score in a brothel (anyone remember that embarrassing effort against the British Lions in 2005?).

His résumé may not match that of Russell’s, but Rennie does have an NPC first division crown with Wellington to his name, not to mention back-to-back world championships with the New Zealand Under 20s. There was a spell as Hurricanes assistant coach in 2002, too.

But perhaps most importantly the 46-year-old has the support of the provinces and has shown he is not afraid to work his way up from the bottom again, something he did when he returned to his coaching roots (Upper Hutt Rugby Club) to take the under 21 side when his first foray into the top level stagnated.

So there you have it – two equally good mentors vying to become just the franchise’s fourth coach.

The successful applicant has an expectation to deliver. The Hurricanes region is overflowing with talent at the moment that a Super 14 title will not only be demanded, but also expected.

But something tells me the ‘Canes should be able to produce the goods if either of these two is given the nod.

Keane lands top job at Tasman

FORMER All Black Kieran Keane has been named as the new coach of the Tasman Makos.

The Marlborough Express reports Keane – whose CV includes coaching stints with Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand under-16 and Marlborough Boys’ College – was promoted from team’s co-coach to the top job following a season review and interview process by the Tasman Rugby Union.

He beat six candidates for the fulltime role, including fellow co-coach Bevan Cadwallader.

The Makos finished ninth in last season’s Air New Zealand Cup, but are likely to do it even tougher this year, as a number of players – most notably skipper Andrew Goodman, Quentin MacDonald and Kahn Fotuali’i – have left the province. CLICK HERE to read more.

OPINION: Depth at lock runneth over

Tom Donnelly

ONE OF the real positives to emerge from the 2009 season is the sudden depth at lock. Put simply, the number of quality options New Zealand rugby has in second row has never looked better.

And that’s a good thing, as far as  Yours Truely is concerned, because there was a time when the cupboard was looking a little sparse and the lineout a tad shaky.

One only has to cast their mind back a season or two when Chris Jack, Greg Rawlinson, Troy Flavell, Keith Robinson and James Ryan – all of whom had worn the black jersey – announced they were either cashing up and heading to greener pastures overseas or pulling the pin on their respective careers.

That left a gaping hole, and although Graham Henry and co. were able to fill the void, there was a feeling that if injuries struck, the selectors would be scrapping the bottom of the barrel to find suitable replacements to do the business.

Fortunately those fears have been alleviated following the emergence of some fantastic exponents of second row play this year.

Top of the list would be Otago and Highlanders beanpole Tom Donnelly.

Although the tough-as-teak southerner has been on the scene since 2002 and has come close to cracking the national side in the last couple of seasons, it was this year he came of age and showed his wares after being gifted a chance against the Wallabies in the final Tri Nations match of the season.

The 28-year-old grabbed the opportunity with both hands, bringing some much-needed organisational skills, simplicity and stability to what had been a farcical All Black lineout display up until that point by doing the type of stuff he had been doing at super and provincial level for a number of years.

The fact the men in black dominated the airways during their recent European jaunt had much to do with Donnelly, who has made every post a winner in his six tests since his debut at the Cake Tin and is now an integral cog in the All Black machine.

Brad Thorn

On the subject of integral cogs, one cannot look past Brad Thorn, who in his second season of his second All Black coming continued to produce consistent displays that defy his 34 years of age.

NZ Rugby World editor Gregor Paul named the former Brisbane Broncos star as the player of the tour and described him as “the glue that held the All Blacks together” in December/January’s issue of the magazine.

It is a pretty accurate assessment, for not only did Thorn perform strongly on tour, his heavy workload in the trenches, around the fringes and up the guts were at the fore during all 14 internationals the All Blacks played this year.

The fact he also played every minute of every test, except for the final 15 minutes against the Frogs in Marseilles, was a testament to his ability and value to the team.

So inspirational were Thorn’s performances in the black jersey, it is hard to believe the second rower was not nominated for the big gong at last week’s Steinlarger Rugby Awards.

Another to have caught the eye with some scintillating displays was young Isaac Ross, who, after initially struggling to buy a start for the Crusaders, was an All Black by the end of the Super 14.

Isaac Ross

The son of former All Black Jock did a superb job deputising for the injured Ali Williams in his debut season and by the time the Tri Nations rolled around, he had become well known for his mobility, aerial prowess and honest attitude.

His career may have stalled somewhat after being unfairly dropped for the final Tri Nations test and then being left at home to bulk up while the All Blacks jetted to Europe, but the 24-year-old looks a world class player in the making and it will be interesting to see how he comes back in 2010.

Others on the comeback trail include ‘Comical Ali’ and Hawke’s Bay lock Bryn Evans, who like Ross, could not crack the Hurricanes starting XV, but did enough in his limited appearances to impress the three wise men with his skill set and earn two caps for the All Blacks before injury curtailed his season.

Throw All Black tourists Anthony Boric and Jason Eaton – as well as proven performers like Jeremy Thrush, Craig Clarke, Kevin O’Neil, Josh Bekhuis, Hayden Triggs and the returning Jack – into the mix and it appears our stocks in the locking department are overflowing.

All of which means messers Henry, Hansen and Smith have some difficult decisions to make as they look ahead with one eye to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

BOP secure ‘Flash’ service for 2010

Lelia MasagaCOUNTIES Manakau speedster Lelia Masaga will be sporting Bay of Plenty colours in the Air New Zealand Cup from next season.

According to the Bay of Plenty Times, the one-test All Black (right) wing has signed with the Steamers until 2011.

That means he will still be eligible for the Chiefs, for whom he has made 42 appearances for since his Super 14 debut in 2006.

Masage made his All Black debut against Italy earlier this year in Christchurch.

The Bay have secured the services of Brett Mather (Otago) and Daniel Waenga (Hawke’s Bay) for next season, too. CLICK HERE to read more.