Keeping the Hurricanes on an even keel will be captain Conrad Smith’s greatest challenge heading into their Super Rugby semi-final against the Brumbies.
Veteran All Blacks centre Smith admits it will be hard enough to stay grounded himself on Saturday for a game which carries sentiment on many levels.
The top-qualifying Hurricanes have reached the playoffs for the first time in six years and are poised to run out in front of a sold-out Wellington crowd for the first time since their only other home playoffs appearance, a 2006 semi-final.
Dig deeper and there’s more at stake.
The match is potentially the last for a swag of departing Hurricanes, including Smith and his long-time midfield comrade Ma’a Nonu. Both are leaving for France, while All Blacks tight forwards Jeremy Thrush and Ben Franks will play next year in England.
And the team attended the funeral of Jerry Collins last week in Porirua during their week off. Smith admits the death of the former Hurricanes and All Black flanker has been hard to put to one side.
“It’s something real and it affects individuals in different ways,” Smith said.
“There’s a lot swirling around this team at the moment with what’s happened over the last few weeks but you’ve got to be careful the way you play with those emotions.
“The winner won’t be who deserves it. It’s just who plays the best rugby on Saturday night.”
Smith says experienced players are probably better equipped to deal with off-field distractions and he will offer support to any teammates who need it.
The team received a boost on Thursday when coach Chris Boyd confirmed a full-strength team aside from injured All Black winger Cory Jane.
The 32-year-old admitted he came back too soon from a hamstring niggle in the 21-13 win two weeks ago over the Chiefs. He hobbled off early after another strain.
“I was selfish when we played the Chiefs coz my hamstring wasn’t 100% but wanted to play so only thought about me. TEAM 1st NOW..” Jane tweeted after he was ruled out.
There are four changes from the New Plymouth game, with the most important being the return of five-eighth Beauden Barrett from a calf strain, prompting a backline shuffle.
James Marshall moves from No.10 to fullback, pushing Nehe Milner-Skudder to Jane’s vacant right wing spot.
Nonu returns at inside centre in place of Rey Lee-Lo while dynamic forwards Ardie Savea and James Broadhurst are back for flanker Callum Gibbins and lock Mark Abbott respectively.
Hurricanes: James Marshall, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith (capt), Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, James Broadhurst, Jeremy Thrush, Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Reggie Goodes. Res: Brayden Mitchell, Chris Eves, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Mark Abbott, Blade Thomson, Chris Smylie, Rey Lee-Lo, Matt Proctor.