The ‘Moneyball’ Hurricanes have unexpected success
The Wellington Hurricanes’ season has been perplexing. They are winning games in a New Zealand Super Rugby Conference filled with teams that have significantly more ‘star power’ than their own.
Against the odds and often common sense, the Hurricanes have managed to win games through a counter-attacking style that spits in the face of modern rugby, which revolves around possession retention.
In the Hurricanes’ eight wins this season, their highest possession percentage for a match is 51% and six of their wins have come with 41% or less.
They have achieved this through a ‘Moneyball’ situation.
The ‘Moneyball’ concept was portrayed in a novel written by Michael Lewis about real life events surrounding the Oakland A’s baseball team and its poor economic situation.
It used statistical analysis to discover which players were being over or underpaid. This way you could purchase a team economically by selecting players with great tools rather than physical stature, power or notoriety and compete with the high profile sides.
Mark Hammett has done something similar with Wellington. He shelled his team, which was full of stars and underperforming, for scarcely recogniseable faces.
It was a bold move and as Graham Henry said in relation to these decisions, “There is a fine line between being a hero and being hated.”
Ma’a Nonu, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear and Bryn Evans were suddenly replaced with the likes of Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Ben May, Tim Bateman, Dane Coles and Andre Taylor.
It seemed like he owned a Ferrari but traded it for a Fiat.
Fans, local media and even his own players criticized Hammett heavily but given the performances produced by this ‘lightweight team’, much like myself, these detractors may start to believe in his strategy.
The ethos of the team revolves around mate-ship and the sense of belonging. It is a real underdog type mentality that only together will they survive.
I think the Hurricanes approach to the season can be summed up nicely by using a quote from the movie ‘Any Given Sunday’.
“Look at the guy next to you. I think you are going to see the guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows, when it comes down to it, you are going to do the same thing for him. That is a team gentlemen. We either heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.”
The decision to have Conrad Smith as his on-field leader is also a key factor in their success.
Smith is a truly likeable, intelligent, honest and professional athlete who constantly demands improvement from his young side, a man himself who does not fit the norm for midfielders in the world of modern rugby.
He is a player who could easily be described as undersized, but uses guts and guile to dominate in a very subtle manner.
Often his exploits go unnoticed by the casual observer, such is his workman like performances. He is the perfect leader for a team that required inspiration and a living example that underdogs can succeed in modern sport.
Having been a Hurricanes supporter since their inception, I should not be shocked by the current situation. Their entire marketing ploy in the early days of the franchise was for fans to ‘expect the unexpected.’
This has never been more pertinent than this year. The season has gone from one of utter despair to quiet optimism.
There is hope for the future if you are a Hurricanes supporter. These players were barely recogniseable at the beginning of the season; by the end they will be household names.
I congratulate you Mr. Hammett, you have turned me into a believer.
As my friend Rig once said, “There is a fine line between genius and insanity, it is called success.”