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Hansen’s Coles clanger

  • 12 Sep 2013
Dane Coles will start at hooker for the All Blacks against the Springboks Dane Coles will start at hooker for the All Blacks against the Springboks

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has taken a tight-five gamble in selecting the diminutive Dane Coles at hooker, reports JON CARDINELLI in Auckland.

On Thursday, Hansen confirmed five changes to the All Blacks starting side for Saturday's clash with the Springboks. The inclusion of tighthead Owen Franks, openside flank Sam Cane, and inside centre Ma'a Nonu was expected, but the elevation of Coles to No 2 and Liam Messam to No 6 has come as a surprise.

While less-experienced, Steven Luatua has brought more versatility to that blindside role, providing a good lineout option in the middle and a powerful ball-carrying presence. While it makes sense to bring Messam in for his experience and aggression at the breakdown, it will leave the All Blacks short of lineout jumpers. With the smaller Messam and Cane in tow, Coles will have only three forwards to aim at.

What doesn't make sense is the selection of Coles. This game has been billed as a season-definer, and the All Blacks' most important since the 2011 World Cup final. Why then is the coach taking such a big gamble?

The set-piece battle will be significant to the outcome, and as Meyer said on Monday, the breakdown will be war. Why has Hansen picked Coles and Messam, who are more suited to a dynamic and expansive approach?

'We see Dane as the future,' the All Blacks coach said with a deadpan expression. 'Now is the time to play him. He would have started more Tests this year if not for a calf injury. He's the guy to take us forward, and we'd like to see how he goes in the big ball park.'

The All Blacks have already begun to plan for the 2015 World Cup. Aging hooking options in Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu are unlikely to be available for that tournament, and Hansen has reasoned that Coles needs to be backed sooner rather than later.

Nevertheless, it's a big call to back Coles in a game of this nature and importance. It's a selection that doesn't makes sense given the Boks' set-piece and breakdown strengths, and the combative manner in which they operate.

The selection of Cane has already been spoken about at length. Richie McCaw was helped from the field in New Zealand's recent win over Argentina, and will be sidelined for five weeks. This has necessitated a promotion for Cane. Evidently, Hansen feels that Cane is better suited to a clash of this nature than the Crusaders' Matt Todd.

Hansen defended his selections in the back row, arguing that Messam would bring both experience and physicality to the blindside role. On the point of Cane, the All Blacks coach said that he wasn't expecting the youngster to play like McCaw at this stage of his career.

'The Boks have some big loosies, and even a guy like Francois Louw is a big man. He's very good over the ball, and we need someone to counter that. We feel we have that in Liam.

'We also believe Sam is ready for the challenge both physically and mentally. It's not easy to replace a player like McCaw, but that's the thing, Sam will need to be his own man and concentrate on what he can bring to the role.

'It's the job of the tight five to set the platform,' added Hansen. 'If they don't, the South African loosies will dominate. It's a big game and our players need to step up.

'After the World Cup, the Bledisloe Cup is the most cherished trophy in New Zealand. As for our greatest foe, well, look no further than the Boks.'

This begs the question why has Hansen backed Coles ahead of the more robust and battle-hardened hookers in the All Blacks squad. No doubt it is a selection that will please the Boks.

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