Dane Coles embraces pressure of All Black role
Dane Cole may well be New Zealand rugby's premier multitasker.
There are plenty of other hookers out there.
Some are big, but a tad slow. Some are quick, but throw to the lineout like a drunken sailor. Some can play on the fringes like a loose forward, but can't scrummage.
Any wonder, then, that Coles and veteran Keven Mealamu are currently the only two men in the country deemed to have the required all-round skills to wear the black No 2?
All Blacks set-piece coach Mike Cron is overseeing the latest evolution of a position he says is asking more than ever of the man in the middle.
"In the modern era our front rowers can't just be set-piece boys, particularly in New Zealand, where we are trying to develop their all-around skill level," he said this week.
"The hooker has to throw to the lineout, which I believe is right up there with goalkicking. There are so many things that can make a lineout go wrong, and only one is the hooker, unless he throws a pie.
"And under the new rules, the hooker has to scrummage every bit as well as a tighthead prop. He's got a lot of isometric loading from the scrum and he needs to be a lot more flexible [to hook the ball].
"I encourage all the young hookers to do yoga or Pilates or whatever spins their wheels. It's going to be a big thing under the new scrum laws."
Cron's only getting started.
After trying to bend their bodies forward to hook the ball (an impossible 105cm stretch if the ball is in the middle of the channel) while being crushed by the force of the scrum, the hooker needs to emerge with enough in the tank to defend like a loose forward and attack like a centre.
"You take a guy like Andrew Hore," Cron said of the 81-test veteran's final year of test rugby. "We tweaked our attack system last year a little and he ended up playing on the wing quite a bit. It's fair to say it wasn't natural and he hated it out there.
"But, he worked hard at the skills, especially the draw and pass, and in that South African test [in Johannesburg last year] he passed it twice out wide that led to tries.
"It might not have been in his repertoire, but he trained it and he became adequate at it . . . and he could do that at 34 or whatever age he was."
YOUNG rakes such as Coles, 27, and apprentices Nathan Harris, 22, and Liam Coltman, 24, have no such worries out wide where their explosive pace and skill make them a natural fit.
But up front, they are making big adjustments, literally, in order to counter international beasts such as Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis.
"Colesy is about 108.5kg and has been 110kg," Cron said. "When he first came in with us he was 100kg, so he's carrying quite a bit more, but he's just as dynamic because it's good weight.
"Nathan Harris came in and in our environment this year he's already put on 5kg, so we've banged on some weight through the players' understanding of what they eat. Nutrition is the key. A lot of them are not fuelling enough."
With the "hit" taken out of scrums, Cron is confident more "athletes" can make the transition to hooker and notes that he is often asked at lower levels to convert loose forwards and locks to the front row.
But finding, and enlarging, the likes of Coles, Harris and Coltman is only half the battle.
Size does nothing to refine the fine motor skills and, perhaps more importantly, the mental focus and fortitude required to throw to the lineout in pressure situations.
"There are always a number of things going on," Coles said, when asked why it was so tough to master. "The throw has to be on target and if the lift is not right, or the jump is not right, then there are timing issues. There is also the movement of the lineout and, unfortunately, it always gets blamed on the hooker [when it goes wrong]."
He said the blame and shame of a lost throw can play havoc with a young hooker's mind and affect the rest of their game.
"It might not even be his fault, but that's just the nature of the role and you learn to deal with it and move on. She's a high pressure position, but that's part of the job," Coles said.
"When you are young and on the scene, and stuff one up, you go into the red. Over time you learn to deal with it better. The best way is to flush and move on and think about the next one."
Cron says robust processes and strong systems are key. The hooker needs to know the calls, know the visual queues for when to release the ball, and know how to control the pace of his throw.
If those boxes are ticked, the player can rest easy regardless of outcome.
Only not everyone can achieve such Zen-like acceptance, and that remains a constant work-on with the younger players.
"You can't have a hooker get there early and hold the ball above his head for 12 or 15 seconds, shaking away waiting for the call, then try to throw," Cron said. "I say get there and get ready and if it's not on, bring your arms down and relax, so when you bring the ball up its only for a minimum time. Relax the hands and when you are ready, then just before you throw, tense your muscles and go."
The Dominion Post