Hookers are getting bigger and stronger, but the All Blacks have produced an exception to the rule in Dane Coles, who may just be the best of them all. MARC HINTON reports.
As the game of rugby gets bigger and bigger, with gym-honed, protein-fuelled bodies bulging out of skin-tight uniforms like Marvel superheroes careening round in the latest multiplex headliner, one man fights a lone battle for the maxim that, in his position at least, size doesn’t matter. His name is Dane Coles and he may well be the best hooker in the game, not to mention one of the smallest.
At just 103kg, the 28-year-old inevitably gives away bulk every time he runs out in the Test arena for the All Blacks. Sometimes he’s dwarfed by the Godzillas he’s up against. His Springbok rivals, Bismarck du Plessis (114kg) and Adriaan Strauss (112kg), and Wallabies opposites, Stephen Moore (112kg) and Tatafu Polota-Nau (115kg), are in another weight division. But – and really, this is all that counts – in the playing ranks, Coles is every much their equal, and then some.
He is, in many ways, the exception(al) who proves the rule.
The Wellington late bloomer, who has been the All Blacks’ first-choice No 2 for the past two seasons, has rapidly emerged as the most exciting hooker in the game, and many – including the great Sean Fitzpatrick – believe him to be the premier exponent of the hooker’s all-round repertoire in international rugby. His speed off the mark is devastating, his work rate around the field is off the charts and when you combine that with excellent fundamentals, innate hardness and an instinctive brilliance that cannot be coached, it makes him one of those difference-makers who pepper the New Zealand lineup.
In so many ways it’s Coles’ size – or lack of it – that makes him the player he is.
Think of those long-range tries he scored pre-World Cup against the Springboks at Ellis Park and the Wallabies at Eden Park. Could any of his beefed-up rivals have produced that withering run on the angle from 30-odd metres out in Joburg early in the second spell, where he popped up outside Malakai Fekitoa off phase ball in the midfield to run into the briefest of holes? Or been quick enough to loom up outside a streaking Dan Carter to take the pass and dash 40m on the swerve for the Wallabies killer in Auckland?
They were tries that had Coles written all over them. Sudden bursts of speed, dexterity and staying power, at opportune moments, that you simply don’t see from the men of the tight five. Certainly not from paid-up members of the front-row club.
But he’s not just a glory boy dashing away for big-game tries – though he’s now got two apiece against the Boks and Wallabies, all since 2014. Remember that defining victory against Ireland in Dublin back in November 2013, clinching the historic perfect year for the All Blacks? Well, who was it cropping up wide on the left at the pointy end of one of the great last-minute attacking surges of all time, offloading the perfect pass to Ryan Crotty to complete the unlikely escape act? That man Coles, of course.
Naturally, he’s reluctant to talk about his own glories. Too self-effacing, too conscious of perceptions, too damn smart.
‘It’s just the way it happens, the way the game evolves and I happen to be in the right place at the right time,’ was how he explained it to one reporter. ‘I never plan for those kinds of things. It’s just the way the game evolves and I see the gap.’
After his eye-watering run-in from nigh on halfway in Auckland, with his legs pumping furiously, those socks, as ever, round his ankles, he was aghast to be asked afterwards to pore over his feat.
‘Dezzie [Dan Carter] sucked in about four defenders and I just seemed to be off his shoulder. I’m happy to run that far and have a go.’
Not that we should necessarily be surprised that Coles developed into the rugby player he did. He grew up in Paraparaumu, just north of Wellington, which just happened to be Christian Cullen country at that time.
Naturally, the kid who seemed to always have a rugby ball in his hands (he also played his share of rugby league as a youngster) had visions of emulating the majestic running feats of the great All Blacks fullback. Little did he know that years later he’d be making his own headlines, for his own special blend of skills.
Maybe the path was set the day young Coles’ father happened to take his rugby-mad son to visit the Cullen family home where a selection of the legend’s All Blacks paraphernalia was kept proudly on display. Coles recalls declaring to himself as he walked away: ‘I want my room to be like that one day.’
When Coles was first selected for the All Blacks in 2012, his mother Sonya was not in the least surprised.
‘He’s worked so hard,’ she said. ‘He’s always overcome hurdles and it hasn’t been easy for him. But it is all he’s ever wanted. He was always outside with his father and his uncles making big holes in my backyard.’
Coles has been somewhat of a slow-burner – as they often are in the front row. He’s had the skills and speed for a while but it’s taken longer for his game, and temperament, to mature to the point where he could become entrusted with the No 2 jersey worn by so many of the greats of the New Zealand game, including the man Coles acknowledges as his mentor, Keven Mealamu.
‘I am more comfortable now,’ he says. ‘I am expressing myself and showing what I’m capable of. But if I’m not doing those core roles well, I won’t be playing. I have to nail off my scrums, my lineouts. The running is a bonus; I just need to make sure if I get those chances, I nail them.’
Fitzpatrick explained during the World Cup how he challenged the Kiwi hooker when they spoke at a scrummaging session on the All Blacks’ 2014 tour north.
‘I told him he needed to become the best hooker in the world, but to do that he had to be good at all parts of his game,’ Fitzpatrick said. ‘We all know he can run with the ball, but he needs to be good over the ball and be a good lineout thrower, which he is. But where he has really stepped up, and what he was worried about, is his scrummaging.’
Needless to say, Coles has ticked all the right boxes.
‘I believe Dane is now the No 1 hooker in world rugby,’ concluded the 1987 world champion.
Yeah, size doesn’t really matter, does it.
– This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine