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.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - GRE­GOR PAUL with the story.

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.

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