18 Jun 2019

James Blackwell: The Hurricanes' unsung hero

4:40 pm on 18 June 2019

The names roll off the tongue pretty readily.

Hurricanes forward James Blackwell.

James Blackwell in action for the Hurricanes against the Crusaders. Photo: Photosport

Beauden Barrett, Ngani Laumape, TJ Perenara, Jordie Barrett, Matt Proctor, Ben Lam, Chase Tiatia, Wes Goosen, Salesi Rayasi. If the Hurricanes are known for anything, it's their brilliant backs.

Season after season, it's appeared as if the blokes in the backline have conjured up miracles to make up for the deficiencies of those up front. Just not in 2019.

No team won more Super Rugby regular-season games than the Hurricanes this year. We all regard the Crusaders as the competition's best team, but even they can't compete with the Hurricanes' 12 victories.

The style of those 12 wins has perhaps been a little misleading. By the Hurricanes' own standards, the quality of their performances has only been middling. Games have been hard won, and often from behind, with fewer of the frills that we associate with Hurricanes rugby.

More from Hamish Bidwell

They're wins that have been achieved on the back of brave efforts from forwards many fans have hardly heard of. Men such as lock James Blackwell, who was finally given a rest in week 18 having started every match till then.

Listed at 1.90-metres and 107 kilograms, Blackwell reckons he might have actually crept up to 112. Even so, he'll be giving up 17 centimetres and about 20kgs when he marks up against RG Snyman, when the Hurricanes host the Bulls in Saturday's Super Rugby quarterfinal at Westpac Stadium.

"Size has been a big focus for me ever since I left school so for five or six years that has been gradually coming,'' the 24-year-old Blackwell told RNZ.

"Through not being the biggest guy I've learned there are things I can do to make myself a better player and there are strengths I can use when I come up against bigger players, which has been pretty much week upon week.

"That's just things like absolutely nailing your technique so you know you've got the confidence that when you come up against someone bigger you've got the technique and the belief in yourself.

"These guys are big but I can still compete and still get a fair share of wins.''

You learn to take descriptions of players being the first to training and last to leave with a grain of salt. They all train hard and, frankly, as professional athletes, so they should.

But Blackwell's had to put in more effort than most. For two years he barely saw a minute of game time. His job at the Hurricanes was not to play, but to mimic the opposition at training.

Week after week he learned the habits and patterns of the opponent and then got hammered by his more illustrious team-mates, during their simulated matches.

His reward in 2018 was the Hurricanes' Hunters Award, which goes to the person who doesn't play but whose work behind scenes is noticed and admired by the coaching staff and his peers.

Hurricanes coach John Plumtree.

Hurricanes coach John Plumtree asked for a big NPC season from James Blackwell last year. Photo: Photosport

This year might have been much the same, if not for a carrot dangled by new head coach John Plumtree. He told Blackwell there needed to be far more impetus in his tackling and carrying, during Wellington's 2018 provincial campaign. If Blackwell could show an ability to do that, Plumtree said, then he would begin to put himself in the frame for Hurricanes' selection.

Fast forward and a berth in the starting side each week suggests Blackwell's more than done that.

"Obviously it's a very different experience and I'm really happy to be in the position I am,'' he said.

"In saying that, having gone through the two years being pretty much solely the opposition, I have a pretty good perspective on it and know that I can't take it for granted and need to be doing just as much, if not more, work to continue to try and improve my game and be better for the team.

"But it's a great feeling to be able to go out and perform and feel like you're a real part of the contribution that goes towards a win or a loss.''

Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, Blackwell's had to re-assess a few goals. A former New Zealand under-20 rep, he's seen contemporaries such as Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue quickly kick on to bigger things.

His rise hasn't been as rapid, but won't be hampered by a lack of effort.

"Confidence is a big thing and you get your confidence from different things. When you're not getting that game time it's a lot harder, whereas now that I'm playing I can build my confidence through playing.''

Having just completed a commerce degree at Victoria University, Blackwell's hardly dim. That makes him well aware that the Bulls, like most sides have this year, will try and beat the Hurricanes through the forwards.

Teams think they can dominate Blackwell and company there and place great emphasis on it accordingly. Whether it's the emphasis or the perceived weakness that are the key factor, the Hurricanes forwards will still be under pressure.

"The self-fulfilling part of that is probably a big part, but I'm really enjoying it,'' Blackwell said.

"I think it challenges us to continue to get better and to really face up to the opposition and if we continue with this public perception [of being vulnerable up front] for the time I'm here, it won't worry me.

"As long as we continue to win games and to put ourselves in a position to win a championship [then I'm happy].''

*Hamish Bidwell is a contributor to RNZ. He has previously worked at The Northern Advocate, Gisborne Herald, Hawke's Bay Today, The Press, The Dominion Post and Stuff.

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