Dane Coles adds new dimension to New Zealand attacking game
All Black hooker has usurped Mealamu with five tries highlighting ability in open channels
New Zealand’s hooker Dane Coles has been compared to a young Keith Wood. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images
Ryan Crotty’s try in overtime to beat Ireland in November 2013 doesn’t get any easier to watch. But it’s instructive to recall the key play and try-scoring pass from Dane Coles. As second last receiver from Aaron Cruden, the replacement hooker stepped inside Ian Madigan to take both his tackle and the covering Seán O’Brien to deftly feed Crotty five metres from the line.
Nigel Owens checked with his TMO to see if the pass had gone forward. How we prayed. Alas, no. It was fine, and was evidence of the skills-set in the open channels that would mark Coles as a hooker apart and, along with Kieran Read, a key component in the All Blacks’ running game out wide off turnovers and multi-phase attacks.
His coach at the Hurricanes, Mark Hammett, himself a former All Blacks hooker, has likened Coles to a young Keith Wood. Coles has a lethal step off both feet, genuine acceleration and a passing and offloading game, notably a one-handed, right-hand offload.
Two of his five Test tries have come against Australia. In the 29-28 win in Brisbane in October 2014, as second last receiver, he dummied Adam Ashley-Cooper and accelerated inside Will Genia.
Even better followed in the All Blacks’ revenge 41-13 Bledisloe Cup win over the Wallabies in August, when Dan Carter dummied through the Australian defence from his own 10-metre line, and who did he find on his shoulder 10 metres inside the opposition half but Coles?
The hooker took the pass and again left Ashley-Cooper for dead with a sway of the hips at full tilt to finish from 40 metres, taking Nic White’s tackle to score. It required second viewing, just to believe it.
That Ireland game was his 15th cap, a year and two weeks after his debut as a replacement in the win over Scotland, when he was 25. Now 28, he has 35 caps to his name already, but even so he is something of a late developer given he represented New Zealand under-19s in 2005 and New Zealand under-21s in 2007, before making the New Zealand Maoris in 2010.
By his own admission, Coles used to be a bit of a lad when he was younger. He smiled when one of his questioners wondered if, as a one-time “hell-raiser”, he could have believed four years ago he’d be looking forward to a World Cup final.
“Nah mate. Like, you always dream of these moments but until you’re actually here you never think it will come true. I remember watching that World Cup in 2011, I was just a fan; what they did for the country. To be here and having a chance to play is a dream come true; I can’t wait.”
So what changed? “It was probably the departure of Horey [Andrew Hore],” said Coles, of the point at the end of the 2011 Super Rugby season when Hammett released Hore, who joined the Highlanders in 2012.
“He was going to the Highlanders and I’d been on the bench for three years and always wanted to be an All Black,” added Coles. “So I remember just thinking when he departed: ‘Next year I’m going to be an All Black’. I just did everything in my power to give myself a chance and I achieved that. I enjoyed the festivities and once that was through I kind of just worked my arse off, and made a lot of sacrifices, because I really wanted to be an All Black.
“He has always been great around the field,” says Nigel Yalden, the New Zealand Radio sports rugby editor for this World Cup. “His lineout throwing was okay and his scrummaging was very average, but now he is just the complete package.
“His lineout throwing is brilliant. He has worked his ass off there. He has worked really hard on his scrummaging with Mike Cron, and he’s still great around the field, as you can see.”
Coles could be here for a while. You think of All Blacks hookers, and you think of rugby grandees like Andy Dalton, Sean Fitzpatrick, Norm Hewitt and Anton Oliver. That Coles was chosen by Hammett ahead of Hore, and then by Steve Hansen ahead of Hikawera Elliot and Jason Macdonald for that 2012 tour, is clear evidence that they identified a special talent.
That Coles has since effectively usurped Keven Mealamu (the All Blacks’ second most capped player with 131 Tests after Richie McCaw) as the starting hooker is further proof of how much Coles has added to their running game, though the way Coles describes it, this is also a tribute to Mealamu’s own generosity of spirit.
“It’s massive,” Coles said of Mealamu’s influence.
“I’ve probably said before, he’s the guy I looked up to watching footy and to be actually in the same team and the things he’s done for the game, I’ve had countless conversations with him over the years to help me improve my game and the place I’m at now, he’s probably the main reason why I’ve got a chance to play in the All Blacks for a little while now.
“I can’t say the words to explain how much he means to me and what he’s done for me over the years.
“He’s a very special man, and he’s someone I’ve gone to countless times to improve my game.”