Hard Knocks Hurricanes

In America they have this show called Hard Knocks. It’s a sports-reality show, going all the way in depth on an NFL team as they make their way through a gruelling preseason, taking in the many characters and storylines that always emerge as they go. Position battles, coaching dilemmas, rookies adjusting to their new professional lives, injuries, pranks, locker room banter… it’s a pretty fascinating show that’s been airing now for 15 years and 10 seasons.

Come to think of it, the show is a lot like what Sky TV are doing with this new ‘Pre-Season With the Hurricanes’ show that they’ve got running.

“For the first time, Sky Sports cameras will gain access to the team’s inner sanctum, bringing the viewer closer to the heart of the Hurricanes and revealing what makes them tick on and off the field.”

Episode one aired last Friday and there are five more weekly instalments to come. This week’s episode sees the All Blacks join in on the party, how about a little star power aye? Speaking of which, Hard Knocks features the voice of Hollywood actor Liev Schreiber as its narrator (aka Ray Donovan). PSWTH, well they’ve gone one better than that… they’ve recruited Hurricanes Uber-fan John Campbell. The same John Campbell who once sort of wrote something for this very website but not really.

Beginning with a few artistic shots of an empty training field (aside from the groundskeeper on the mower) set with a backdrop of Grant Nisbett’s magnificent tones in commentary of past games, the Hard Knocks vibe is strong. There’s no doubt that this show is trying to be like that show and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Derivative? All telly’s derivative. Pre-Season With the Hurricanes is a very commendable attempt to give Super Rugby the kind of hyper stature that the NFL holds. Hey man, those guys can beat their wives and take PEDs and commit hideous crimes on their own time but nothing can damage the standing of the NFL as an American sporting institution, so it seems.

The reason for that is the Americans, for all their many pros and cons, do grandeur properly. They glorify their stars. The best players in the NFL and NBA especially are instantly recognisable around the world, even by people who don’t follow the sports at all. You own a TV then you know who LeBron James and Steph Curry are. You have internet access then you’ve definitely heard of Cam Newton and Tom Brady. And if you care about the sports for real then there’s no reason you can’t get to know all about the veterans and the sidekicks and the battlers and the rookies too. The size of that country means that there are dozens to hundreds of papers and publications that deal with every team, everything is documented and no stone is left unturned (unless the league ask nicely, but that’s a different story).

Us kiwis though, we don’t really do that hype stuff. Tall poppies get chopped down. We follow our rugby pretty passionately but there isn’t the same interest in all the different angles, which is where this show comes in. It’s a bloody cool little venture, giving a window into Super Rugby squad life and giving even the fringe players the exposure that they’d get automatically in another country simply by being professional sportsmen.

Post intro we get our first look at the team. It’s the first day of pre-season, apparently, and coach Chris Boyd is trying out that agonising icebreaker thing. Stand up and say a few words about yourself. Is this the first day of rugby or the first day of school? Beginning with this Tongan dude in an OKC singlet called Loni Uhila. Wait… don’t we recognise that guy? Damn we do, that’s the Tongan Bear, the guy who beat the Brown Butterbean that time! This was a week or two before that fight and it gets featured later on in the ep.

“I’ll tell you right now the guy that takes a shortcut in training, when he’s absolutely under pressure in a final at the Cake Tin, he’ll take a shortcut as well.” – Chris Boyd

Ah, so that’s what happened in 2015.

One thing that Hard Knocks always has going for it is the sheer vastness of the whole thing. There are 90 guys plus dozens of coaches and staff that begin an NFL pre-season on any given team. There are players who don’t know if they’ll be able to make it and the show always makes a special emphasis on following rookies along the journey. Their introduction becomes ours too and it’s such a crazy world that it helps to see it through innocent eyes before we get back to the gym shots of JJ Watt pumping iron and flipping tires for fun. Obviously these ‘Canes lads are on set contracts. The sense of desperation isn’t there, although instead we do get a stronger sense of comradeship as a compromise.

The compromise was explored with a visit to the inner city apartments of Tony Lamborn, Ricky Riccitelli, Hisa Sasagi, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Michael Fatialofa. Tahuriorangi… just call him the T-Man. A slick looking couple of flats in which they watch cricket, play Playstation, cook meat and pasta dishes and play guitar. Word is that Hisa cooks a mean chicken stir fry. Looks like good fun, the five lads living in two flats above and below each other, meeting for nightly feeds and generally chilling. Kinda makes you wish you tried harder at this stuff back when you were young enough to still make it, but then you see the stories about living away from their wives and kids and that levels it out. Super Rugby, tearing families apart for five months a year.

The Tongan Bear is definitely gonna be a cult hero this season, you can bet on it.

Where Hard Knocks really gets you is on a visceral level. The show is a joint venture between HBO and NFL Films so there’s no lack of cash involved. They always put it to good use too with microphones and cameras in places you’d never expect. Especially the mics, the sounds of Hard Knocks are so incredible. The hits rumble like thunder and you can almost hear the sweat dripping to the turf as the players pant and gasp. They mic them up too, so you get the trash talking on the training paddock and in inter-team games. Everything sounds so loud and immediate it’s like you’re right there.

The closest we get to that in this first ep is with Dan Cron, the scrum coach (and as such a devotee of the dark arts of scrummaging), who takes the front rowers through a few drills on the scrum machine. It’s not the same, but at least there’s a bit of immediacy to it. They probably had to keep the mics out of the way though, Cron’s potty mouth needed a fair chunk of post-production to level out.

The highlight of this first episode is the annual Surf to Peak race. A 1km run from Lyall Bay followed by a cycle around the Welly bays and then a run up Mount Victoria, they’ve been doing it for almost a decade apparently. Head of Strength and Conditioning, a Scottish lad named David Gray (not the singer), tipped either Callum Gibbins or Brad Shields to take it out. Shields won it last year, he knows a thing or two and he nominated 20 year old ginger rookie James Blackwell as a dark horse. The bike ride looks like a blast but God that hill run must be straight murder. The show kinda sped through it, it would’ve been nice to get a more drawn out exhibition but I guess the cameramen couldn’t keep up. Shieldsy called it dead right, Blackwell winning the race in a time of 57 mins and 28 secs.

At only 25 minutes long, the show’s over nice and quick, especially when it whirls through as many threads as this one does. But next week we’re teased a whole bundle of excitement:

  • TJ Perenara’s first day back at training.
  • The contenders for the vacant midfield spot.
  • A “unique and light hearted tour of Hurricanes HQ”.

And eventually we’re promised a little treat for us, CJ Style. Whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean. It must be good because it’s on all the ads.

Hard Knocks always gets better as the focus sharpens and this show ought to be the same. To be fair all they had to work with in this one was four weeks of pre-season fitness training, there’s only so much you can do. When the All Blacks return this week the show is bound to take on a new level of reverence and that’s exactly what Super Rugby deserves in this country. At a time when the sport seems to be losing the unchallenged dominance it once had, when the biggest marketed team has been a complete mess for a few seasons now and there’s suddenly all this room at the top following the post-World Cup exodus, this kinda thing is what Sky Sports needs to be doing to protect its crowned jewel. Pats on the back all around, they’ve created an honest, well-crafted and insightful look behind the curtain of Super Rugby.