There had been some concern the All Blacks had a crises at hooker. Not so. Dane Coles has proven himself to be a quality test footballer.
Dane Coles came of age in June and provided the dynamism, accuracy and intensity the All Blacks need from their hooker.
There wouldn’t have been a mother in the land who wasn’t a little fearful for Dane Coles last year. The All Black hooker never quite looked like he was in the right place – not in the sense that he was out of position and always chasing his tail: more that he didn’t really look like he was the right shape or size for the grizzly work of the front- row.
When the Boks played at Eden Park, Bismarck du Plessis ran out and cast a shadow over most of Auckland. Precisely no prizes are awarded for anyone who correctly guesses on first clocking him, that he must play in the front- row.
Coles with his socks down and skinny calves exposed was much harder to place. A loose forward would probably be the best guess for those who didn’t know. Maybe a midfield back?
When the two scrums came together it was tough to take it in. There was du Plessis, all 116kg of him, more than filling his No 2 jersey. His power so obvious in everything he did. Then there was Coles, 103kg and made to look smaller by his unusual frame. He’s relatively lean and also a little narrow across the shoulders and through the chest.
He’s 27 but could pass for 22 and the contest didn’t appear to be fair. The All Black coaches left Coles out for 45 minutes. He survived but only just and they didn’t pick him in the 23 for the next test before only putting him on the bench for the one after.
Everyone outside the camp drew their own conclusions. It appeared as if the All Black coaches didn’t have much faith in Coles and used him more because he was the best of an ordinary group of emerging hookers, rather than any deep conviction he could blossom into a test player of some standing.
That thinking didn’t change when Coles was confined to the bench for the remainder of 2013 as the starting role alternated between Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore.
The thing was, though, the coaches were managing Coles expertly and very much with the confidence he was going
to come good. It was a classic case of playing the long game. Their faith was never tested and the Steinlager series proved they were right to believe. They were right to have been gently- gently with Coles who came of age in June.
He was, although not strictly by definition as he’d already played 15 tests, the find of the series. He was everything the All Blacks both wanted him and needed him to be.
His lineout throwing was immaculate – didn’t miss one. The All Black scrum was better, tighter and more dynamic when he was in it and he made significant numbers of big tackles.
One in particular in the first test just before half- time changed the momentum – when he and Owen Franks clobbered Joe Launchbury and sent him reeling.
Coles no longer looked like the boy among men. He looked exactly like an All Black hooker should. He had presence. He was strong over the ball; he supported the wide ball carriers and ran hard when he had it.
I think the situation we were in it was a huge test and a big moment for him and he passed with flying colours’ Keven Mealamu
“I learned a lot from last year playing in some high pressure situations and getting the chance to start in all the games in the England series – I am just enjoying my rugby a lot more,” he said. “I really enjoyed it. Comfortable is not quite the right word... but I am enjoying it.”
Part of the reason Coles felt more at ease with test football was his size. The All Black coaches had seen the warrior within Coles in 2013. They saw a player with heart, courage and explosive potential. Head coach Steve Hansen felt that if he could get another five kilos on Coles in 2014, then they would have a different proposition entirely.
Coles would have the bulk and added strength to move big men around and develop the confidence needed to impose
himself. The passion, the energy, the intuition and skills were all there – Coles just needed a bit more on him to make his presence better felt.
So he hit the weights room during the summer and gained the extra weight required. “I have always been told I was too small. But if you have got a bit of ticker, hopefully it will take you a long way,” says Coles. “But I am at a good weight and I have a bit of confidence in my strength.”
The transition has been stunning. Coles is no longer the bench man, asked to finish off what one of the veterans starts. He is the senior man now – not in years or experience – but in selection philosophy and expectation. He was sent out against England to do the damage and go for as long as he could: Mealamu came on to close things out – something he felt a bit of almost parental pride about.
Mealamu, as a truly selfless team man, has been mentoring Coles since 2012 with a view to handing the younger man the No 2 jersey. Mealamu still has his own fire raging within, still loves playing for his country but was truly delighted to see Coles nail three big performances in June and establish himself as genuinely test class.
“I think the situation we were in it was a huge test and a big moment for him and he passed with flying colours,” said Mealamu. “They are a young forward pack but a few of them have been around for a little while now so we are in pretty good hands.”
Coles was the last piece of a tight five puzzle the All Blacks needed to solve this year. They have five quality props, two world class locks and a few others capable of getting there. But at hooker the story wasn’t so good pre- June. There was Coles and Mealamu – one unproven and in some eyes not the right choice and the other... a 35- year- old prone to injury.
To be the team the All Blacks want to be, they need dominance and excellence from their tight five. They need a consistent supply of off the top lineout ball; they need a rock solid scrum; kick- offs have to be mopped up; they need quick tackle ball therefore have to be deadly at the cleanout and they need physical presence and a level of intimidation at the collisions.
The All Blacks have shown in the last year they don’t need much time on the ball – they averaged just 15 minutes in 2013 – but they do need quality possession to exert the pressure and create opportunities. They don’t grind – they blast.
It’s not that their whole game is based on tight five dominance, but it is true they are a far better team, almost unstoppable, when their tight five delivers.
England found that out. For periods in the second test and for nearly all of the third test, the All Black pack was in control. England came with genuine expectation of beating up the All Blacks – pushing them around and therefore controlling the pace of each game. They didn’t even get close.
“I think we dominated the game and that all started up front,” said Hansen after the Dunedin test. “We scrummed really well. We did the lineout well – got a couple of theirs but just around the park we did some nice things too. So all the things you expect them to do they did well and that was very pleasing.”
He could have said much the same thing after the third and in the weeks leading up to this Rugby Championship, it is memories of the All Black tight five thundering into their work against England that will provide Hansen with the assurance that his team are on track to make a good defence of their title.
The All Blacks have been vulnerable in the recent past to sides that take them on at set- piece and attack them exclusively around the fringes of the ruck. That’s how England wore them down in 2012 to inflict the only defeat of Hansen’s reign. South Africa have been effective with a similar approach before, too.
That one avenue appears to have been sealed off. Tony Woodcock played close to his best football of all time against England. Owen Franks was a beast and Retallick and Sam Whitelock could justifiably be considered the best locking combination in world rugby. And of course there was Coles – playing like he belonged there.
There is depth in the form of Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina and Patrick Tuipulotu and contained in that collective is reason for optimism that the All Blacks can go to Sydney and Johannesburg and play the style of football they want. They can go anywhere in the world for that matter and play how they want because their tight five are not going to concede an inch to anyone now.
Coles is the glue that has brought them all together. The raw power and athleticism was obvious for most of last year. The tight five had some good games, some good set piece performances and made a reasonable contribution. But 2014 has been different. The pack have jumped to new heights and the energy and accuracy Coles brings has been significant. When he packs down against du Plessis in September, the mis- match will be harder to pick.
The South African will still be that big bigger and more muscular, but when they are in the thick of the action, it might not be so easy to tell which man is capable of the greater impact.
The first 40 minutes of the third test against England showed just how deadly the All Blacks can be when they get all parts of their game firing. That’s what they want in all six Rugby Championship tests – high quality performances that are better than the one before.
There won’t be any talk within the camp about the unbeaten run they are on. They can set a new world record in Sydney if they win: it will be their 18th consecutive victory. All of that can wait. Australia disposed of France 3- 0 in June and looked comfortable. The Boks had a bit of trouble with Wales but they will be brutal in the Rugby Championship – a massive challenge in Wellington and an even bigger one at Ellis Park.
Coles and his fellow tight five are going to be pounded. They are going to have to take their driving maul to the next level. Their lineout has to stay as sharp as it was in June and their scrummaging will be asked big questions by South Africa and also Argentina.
If the pack can respond, play to their potential, then the All Blacks will be just fine as that Julian Savea bloke seems to go okay when he has the ball in his hands. His mate Ben Smith isn’t too bad either and come to think of it, Cory Jane can play a bit. Ma’a Nonu’s not so bad and Conrad Smith gets by as does that fellow Dan Carter and there isn’t much doubt Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith all have some idea what they are doing.
BALL RUNNER There are few hookers who are as mobile as Coles.
BEEFED UP Dane Coles has added some bulk to his frame which has given him more confidence.
SENIOR CITIZEN Dane Coles came of age against England this year.