A Hurricanes tight five, who have punched above their Super Rugby weight all season, will undergo the ultimate litmus test in Christchurch.
Captain Dane Coles says his youthful engine room is embracing the chance to test itself on Saturday against an All Blacks-dominated Crusaders.
And he believes that battle will dictate the outcome of their vital final-round match, pitting his fourth-placed team in the bunched New Zealand conference against the side ranked second.
The off-season departure of All Black Jeremy Thrush, the year-long absence of James Broadhurst (concussion) and a season-ending blow to Blade Thomson (shoulder) have thrust the limelight on two Super Rugby rookie locks.
Coles has been delighted with how rugged Auckland provincial player Michael Fatialofa and athletic Wellingtonian Vaea Fifita have stepped up.
Coupled with Chris Eves’ late-season promotion in place of injured prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen, they take a raw group south.
All Blacks hooker Coles believes the inexperienced big men came of age in a Sydney furnace last week when they held off a desperate NSW Waratahs 28-17.
“No one had probably heard of Michael Fatialofa and Vaea Fifita at the start of the year,” Coles said.
“We got beaten up (in Sydney) but the ticker they showed to hang in there is only going to be good for us. They’re only going to get better.
“The Crusaders’ tight five is probably the benchmark. It’s good for the guys who are fresh to this level to test ourselves.”
The Hurricanes have made personnel changes to their midfield where Ngani Laumape replaces Matt Proctor, who has twinged his hamstring.
Willis Halaholo moves out one spot to accommodate Laumape at inside centre, providing a third start together for the two players of Tongan heritage.
Coach Chris Boyd is comfortable with the latest combination in a midfield which has changed routinely this year.
Two other candidates – Vince Aso and Pita Ahki – are also out injured.
“They haven’t had a huge amount of time together as a midfield pairing but they have both been heavily involved all season, so I don’t think they will have any problems coming together,” Boyd said.
Hurricanes: James Marshall, Cory Jane, Willis Halaholo, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Michael Fatialofa, Vaea Fifita, Chris Eves, Dane Coles (capt), Reggie Goodes. Res: Ricky Riccitelli, Ben May, Loni Uhila, Mark Abbott, Callum Gibbins, Jamison Gibson Park, Wes Goosen, Jason Woodward.