Is Coles just the 'thug' the All Blacks need?
SPOTLIGHT: In the days after New Zealand’s loss to England at the semifinal stage of last year’s Rugby World Cup, countless post-mortems were performed of the All Blacks’ campaign.
Whether it was armchair critics sitting in front of their TVs, rugby scribes trying to find some untapped insight or the New Zealand coaches themselves, there’s one thing that everyone would have agreed on.
England was simply too physical for their Kiwi opposition.
The English tackled ferociously, attacked like they were hunting their first meal in weeks and threw themselves into every breakdown like men playing for their lives.
For all the All Blacks’ merits, it wasn’t the first time the team were found wanting in the physicality department.
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A year earlier, both England and Ireland dominated the New Zealanders on their tour of the Northern Hemisphere.
The All Blacks narrowly escaped with a win against England thanks to some game-breaking play by Damian McKenzie but even he wasn’t able to conjure up anything a week later, when the Irish earned their first-ever home win over the men in black.
In both those matches, the European sides dominated contact and the All Blacks were rarely able to make any meaningful gains on attack.
That’s not to say that New Zealand didn’t have men on the field capable of taking and making hits – the likes of Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor were all more than capable of that.
Where New Zealand fell down, however, was that they weren’t able to tap into that little bit of extra aggression to really take it to their opposition.
Read is a physical player, but he has never been an aggressive player – and that’s one area where New Zealand’s opponents have always seemed to have an advantage.
Of the side that started against England in the World Cup, lock Brodie Retallick is probably New Zealand’s best at toeing the line – he can get slightly carried away with the handbags, but that’s sometimes exactly what a team needs to gain a bit of dominance and it’s something that NZ haven’t always been able to call upon.
There is, of course, another man in New Zealand who can rarely be questioned about his physicality or aggression, and that’s All Blacks and Hurricanes hooker Dane Coles.
In fact, Coles has explicitly been told in the past to rein his aggression in.
In 2014, Coles received a yellow card against England for lashing out with his boot.
“If he’d mistakenly got someone in the chops with that boot, he’d be home,” coach Steve Hansen said after the match.
“He’ll learn a lesson, hopefully, because we can’t afford in a tournament like the World Cup to lose a hooker for 4-5 weeks. He knows it was dumb and he’ll learn from it.”
In 2019, just a week after the All Blacks had been bested in Perth by a fired-up Wallabies side who had a one-man advantage thanks to a Scott Barrett red card, Coles was again marched from the pitch for 10 minutes.
Hansen was fairly candid with his views on Coles’ indiscretion.
“How disappointed [are we]? Very. We’ll deal with that behind closed doors and move on,” he said.
“It’s a constant work-on for Colesy and it’s a good reminder for him.
“You’re going to get moments when he does something you’d classify as dumb.”
Coles’ biggest problem is that he’s susceptible to being wound up by opposition sides – his short temper has been targeted in the past, as was the case in the 2014 Test.
“He fell to a sucker punch,” Hansen said at the time. “They were poking and prodding him and pulling his jersey.”
That may well be true but referees are never going to intervene with that minimal level of gamesmanship.
The new bullies on the rugby field aren’t the guys that are throwing the punches, they’re the ones getting in your face and goading you on, knowing that the first man to make a move is the one that’s going to be parked on the sidelines for the near future.
England lock Maro Itoje is an expert at this. You’ll very rarely see him getting physical with the opposition, outside of the laws of the game, but he’s the first man on the park that will be clapping and jeering when an opponent makes a mistake.
Itoje gets under players’ skins – players like Coles.
And that’s where the Hurricanes hooker has to be careful. For all the jeering that someone Itoje dishes out, most refs will barely bat an eyelid.
That will compel the Coleses of this world to react – maybe not at first, but somewhere down the track, and that’s when their team is going to have to deal with the consequences of their indiscretions.
Coles’ short fuse, however, doesn’t immediately make him a liability.
Yes, there’s a risk to having him on the park, but there are also plenty of positives.
It’s the aggression that Coles brings to his play that really makes him stand out amongst his All Blacks peers; he will never back down from a challenge, never even give an inch to the opposition.
It’s that combative personality that he tried to channel against the Wallabies last year when he stepped over the line.
“That game we needed to bring a bit of edge and mongrel and I tried to do that. You could see the way we played it was a completely different team from the week before,” Coles said of the match.
“That’s just the way I’ve always played and sometimes it gets me in trouble and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve just got to make sure, like Steve said, I learn my lesson and make sure I stay on the right side of that line. I definitely take that on board. I don’t want to cost the team.”
Coles’ aggression almost cost his Hurricanes side over the weekend against the Sharks – but the hooker was lucky to escape with just a penalty infringement.
It was another case of Coles taking his aggression too far and letting the moment get the best of him, which is something he’s still trying to rein in, even at 33 years of age.
But that aggression doesn’t need to be eliminated from his game, it doesn’t need to be vanquished altogether. It simply needs to be controlled and channelled correctly.
Coles is exactly the type of player that the All Blacks need in order to stand up to the more physical teams in world rugby.
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass