Wiser Hurrell to make first visit to Warriors as a Titan
As heartbroken as they were to lose their favourite Warriors character, perhaps they were adjectives that Kiwi footy fans rarely read about Konrad Hurrell, circa 2012-16: "among our best trainers" … "one of our senior leaders" … "very intelligent player".
Yet when the 26-year-old Tongan centre returns for his first appearance at Mt Smart Stadium as an opponent of the Warriors, as a Titan this Saturday, it will be a more mature, more developed and, undoubtedly, a more content Hurrell than when he departed in May 2016.
Hurrell has played two games in New Zealand since his release and both – Tonga's historic World Cup victory against the Kiwis in Hamilton and the 20-18 semi-final loss to England at Mt Smart – were among the best he has played.
He rolled his ankle and had to withdraw in the warm-up before the round five Warriors-Titans clash last year, robbing fans of an explosive duel with his fellow Tongan-born steamroller Solomone Kata.
On Saturday, the new, improved and focused 'Koni' is determined to give the Titans their first victory against his old mob after five successive losses since a boilover at Mt Smart in April 2015.
Hurrell showed in the World Cup, and in the Titans' round one victory against the Raiders last Saturday, how far he has developed on the field.
While he spread-eagled Canberra skipper Jarrod Croker with a signature arrow-like charge in a team-uplifting moment, the right step was often used in other carries. And in the World Cup for Tonga, some of his final passes for tries and 'out the back' offloads had a real touch of class and were instrumental in his side making the semi-finals and his winger David Fusitua, an opponent on Saturday, picking up five tries.
If Hurrell could be criticised for one thing since his career-changing switch to the Gold Coast, it has been errors caused by simple over-enthusiasm. However, coach Garth Brennan has no concerns about that despite the relevance of Hurrell's return to take on his teammates of four and a half seasons.
"He is well and truly up there among the best centres in the game in my view," said Brennan.
"He came back from the World Cup in really good shape, has been one of our best trainers and is one of our leaders. He doesn't say a lot, unless he's cracking jokes, but when he talks people listen.
"Konrad Hurrell is one of my favourite players in the NRL. I remember coaching against him when he was playing 20s for the Warriors and I can't tell you how many times he destroyed my teams I was coaching against him.
"When I got the job at the Titans, the one player I was really excited to have on my team was Konrad Hurrell. He's great to have in the club and everyone loves playing with Koni.
"He was dominant in everything he did [against the Raiders]. That carry the other night where he ran over the top of Croker, who is a quality centre, set the benchmark. The team fed off the back of that, the fans got involved with that. I wouldn't swap him for any centre in the game.
"When he's carrying the football, strap yourself in if you're making the tackle because you're going to know about it. You ask Jarrod Croker."
It was ironic that Hurrell, who was renowned for being distracted by having too much fun in life and not being serious enough about his football while at the Warriors, had trained particularly well yet was used only three times off the bench in the first half of the 2016 season in Auckland, leading him to seek a release.
He has improved his training further, and his on-field consistency, yet is still having fun on the Gold Coast – loved by fans for his enthusiasm on and off the field where he engages genuinely, during his many community visits and when blowing kisses to his mother back in Tonga after scoring a try.
It is the finesse he has added to his game that sees him return to Mt Smart as a much better player in his 99th NRL appearance.
His Tongan Test coach since 2015, Kristian Woolf, testifies to how much Hurrell has grown.
"He's really grown as a person and a player over the past few years," Woolf says.
"In that Tongan group, he is a real senior leader. His intentions are terrific. He is always wanting to do something for Tonga and help the group be better.
"He's developed as a leader which is probably not something I saw in him in the early years.
"As a player, he has developed as well; he's got a bit more to his game now.
"I don't think he'll have any dramas going back to New Zealand and playing against the Warriors because he got the opportunity to play against New Zealand in the World Cup [in Hamilton] and that was probably the best game he played in the tournament.
"He was responsible for a couple of outstanding plays for us. One was a short side play where he flipped the ball under for David Fusitua to score and that put us in the lead for the first time.
"He has a fair bit to his game. He is very powerful and hard to handle that way; he's got a good pass, a beautiful flip out the back, he's got a bit of footwork as well and he's actually a very intelligent player too."
Brennan says it has been Hurrell's defence that he has worked most on in the off-season. And he'll need to be good in that area against Kata, three years younger and born on another island in Tonga.
The 107kg 'torpedo' Titan versus the 97kg 'kamikaze' Warrior. The Kiwi fans are in for something special.