The Hurricanes will kick off the 2024 season without talismanic leader Ardie Savea and former head coach Jason Holland, who has joined the All Blacks coaching staff under Scott Robertson.
Under Holland’s watch since 2020, the Hurricanes were always competitive but failed to reach the heights under former head coach Chris Boyd who transformed the Canes into the top side in New Zealand in the mid-2010s.
They bullied most of the Australian teams and always had a big scalp among the Kiwi rivals, but did not have the consistency or firepower to match the Crusaders or Blues over the last two seasons.
Incoming head coach Clark Laidlaw, the former All Blacks Sevens coach, will miss the experience and leadership of both Savea brothers as well as franchise legend Dane Coles.
Can they win the title without Ardie Savea?
The reigning World Player of the Year will miss the Super Rugby Pacific season while on sabbatical in Japan with the Kobe Steelers which leaves a massive hole in Canes pack.
Savea is simply irreplaceable so it will be tough going for the Hurricanes and for the forward pack. They will miss his go-forward in the carry game and his production at the breakdown, where Savea and openside flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi formed one of the best poaching tandems in the competition.
Promising No 8 Peter Lakai is likely to fill the void after his Super debut in 2023.
He featured in seven games last year, including three starts and impressed against the Blues early in the year. His carry game is strong with a high work rate that the Hurricanes will rely on.
Coming off a disappointing New Zealand U20 campaign where the side finished 7th, Lakai will relish the opportunity to start frequently for the Hurricanes.
One of the unheralded players over the last two seasons is loose forward Brayden Iose, who brings explosive running and a knack for a breakaway. He is a smokey pick for a breakout season in Savea’s absence.
Former England international and ex-Hurricane Brad Shields has returned to the side after some time in NPC and will help anchor the backrow.
Whilst there is promise there, as a group they won’t be able to replace Savea but the hope is they can further develop the younger players in the positional group.
Winning Super Rugby Pacific without their best player seems like a stretch too far.
Will the Horror-canes tight five survive?
The Hurricanes have always struggled to produce All Black-quality in the locks department in the tight five. For whatever reasons, the second row has not been fruitful for the franchise since inception.
After 2023 the club farewelled long time lock James Blackwell after seven seasons, who headed to Japan.
They have bolstered the group with three signings, James Tucker from the Blues, Ben Grant from North Harbour who stands at 6’9, and young Josh Taula a raw Manawatu prospect with 3 NPC games. The new signings join Isaia Walker-Leawere and Justin Sangster as locks in the Canes engine room.
Walker-Leaware has been a Walking-Liability of sorts with discipline issues persistent through his play. Entering his eighth season of Super Rugby, the Hurricanes need the best from the 26-year-old.
Up front they will miss the experience of Owen Franks, who returned for just one season last year, and legend Dane Coles who has moved to Japan for one last season before retirement.
With Coles gone it is the perfect time for Asafo Aumua to step up and realise the potential that one time saw him capped by the All Blacks.
Anchoring the front row is All Blacks tighthead Tyrel Lomax, who brings quality and excellent scrummaging to the pack.
But it is the rest of the tight five around Lomax that has question marks heading into 2024.
Will it be the Horror-canes pack of old?
Is it time for Cam Roigard?
An Achilles injury to TJ Perenara in late 2022 kept the All Black on the sidelines in 2023, allowing Cam Roigard to establish himself at the Hurricanes and earn an All Blacks call up in the process.
Roigard deputised for Smith during the Rugby Championship before making his way into the Rugby World Cup squad. In France he demonstrated his ability against the lesser teams with dangerous sniping and a running game that ignited some big score lines for the All Blacks.
With Smith having departed New Zealand, Roigard is well and truly in the picture to assume the No 9 jersey for the All Blacks.
But with Perenara healthy and returning, will he start once again for the Hurricanes or will Roigard get the nod?
The two have similar attacking games with support play, running, and ball playing forming part of their identities.
If Roigard is to become the next All Blacks halfback he would need to start frequently to show Robertson what he has to offer.
How Laidlaw plays his two 9s has ramifications for the All Blacks so is a big question for the Hurricanes.
Is it the year for Morgan and Love?
When Beauden Barrett departed for the Blues following 2019, the Hurricanes picked up two New Zealand schoolboys from that year as long-term options to replace him, Aidan Morgan and Ruben Love.
The pair started at first five-eighth and fullback for the New Zealand age grade side that year and have since become full-time squad members four years later.
Love burst onto the scene in Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2021 when he took over the No 10 jersey as a stopgap solution due to injury and flourished with raw ability. The fullback-turned-10 dazzled with sharp footwork and fearless running at the line.
Morgan took a little longer to reach Super level, debuting in 2022, but has shown similar flashes of playmaking genius with smart hands and shifty feet.
Entering their third and fourth seasons respectively, the time has come for their combination to flourish and for the pair to take over the Hurricanes’ backline.
Jordie Barrett has vacated the No 15 jersey for the midfield, allowing Love to assume the fullback role. Morgan has to beat out returning All Black Brett Cameron for the starting No 10 role.
What are the expectations for Clark Laidlaw’s first year?
A good season for Laidlaw’s first year would be a top four finish and a home playoff fixture.
In 2023 a late season fade saw them finish with a 9-5 record and settle for 5th place, meaning they had to travel to Canberra to face the Brumbies for a dejavu rematch.
They were pipped 37-33, the second straight exit at the hands of the Brumbies in Canberra in the quarter-finals after a 35-25 loss in 2022.
Getting past the quarter-finals into a semi-final would be seen as a success, which puts the onus on earning a home playoff this year.
A third straight quarter-final exit after finishing in the bottom half of the eight would be a disappointment.
A third straight quarter-final loss to the Brumbies would be even more so.
But without their best player this year, a so-so tight five and new combinations in key positions across the backline, 2024 is likely going to be a stepping stone to greater things for the Hurricanes.