Coles gets a chance to cement All Blacks spot
The future is now in the All Blacks, and it comes in the form of a fresh-faced hooker from Wellington who finally gets the chance to step out of the shadow of a couple of old masters.
While blindside flanker may have been the position that gave coach Steve Hansen the most pause for thought ahead of Saturday's pivotal test against the Springboks, it's his bold selection of 26-year-old Dane Coles at hooker that is probably the most telling.
This is as big a test as it gets outside of a World Cup -- a view the All Blacks have been happy to propagate all week - and it was notable that Hansen decided to send Coles out to meet that challenge at hooker, rather than either of his greybeard rakes in Andrew Hore or Keven Mealamu.
It says a lot about the faith Hansen has in Coles, who has played just eight tests over the last two years, that he has received the nod for this matchup between the world's two best sides.
"He's somebody we see as the future and we think now's the time to give him an opportunity to go against the best," said Hansen today after announcing a team including five changes from last week's unconvincing 28-13 victory over Argentina in Hamilton.
Owen Franks and Ma'a Nonu are both fit again and slot back into their usual spots, while Sam Cane was always going to deputise for the injured Richie McCaw at openside. Liam Messam was predictably picked ahead of rising young star Steven Luatua at No 6, partly because of his physicality, partly because of his experience and partly because he's coming off a hamstring injury and it's considered more of a risk to bring him off the bench.
But it's the nod for Coles that caught one or two by surprise. Given it's the Boks, given their predilection for direct, confrontational play up front, and given that Coles is considered more of an athlete than a hard nut, many presumed either Hore or Mealamu would have been given the assignment.
But as he continues to prove in this new era of All Black rugby, Hansen has shown he's not afraid to make the bold calls when he feels the moons are aligned.
"We're comfortable with where's he's at from a fitness point of view," added Hansen today. "He's back playing games, and if he hadn't injured his calf earlier in the year he probably would have started a few more tests. We just think the timing is right.
"He's the guy we see going forward. We just think it's time to give him an opportunity in the big ball perk and see how he goes."
Hansen emphasised it's not make or break for Coles. Far from it, given the uncertain future of the veteran duo he's competing with. Mealamu, 34, who will come off the bench on Saturday, has struggled for form and fitness this year, while Hore, 35 tomorrow, is reportedly ready to hang up the boots and head to the family farm, as soon as his country can do without him.
Hansen confirmed Hore's pending retirement was a factor in Coles' selection, though the coach also indicated that the gold watch should not be sent to the engravers just yet.
"We know he's 35, and we know whether he's going to retire this year or next year, at some stage he's going have to be replaced. He knows that, we know that, and we've been planning for it for quite a while.
"But we haven't been prepared to put someone into the squad who we don't think is ready. Hence we've held on to both him and Kevvy for as long as we have. They're playing well but when you're thinking about 2015 I don't see Horey being there and I don't think he sees himself being there.
"At some point we're going to have to make a change but we need Colesy to be ready when we make that change. That's part of our thinking in this selection."
Hansen did raise a few eyebrows when he pointed out there was "a chance" Mealamu could last through until the 2015 World Cup, "if his body holds up".
Messam's selection had been a case of all the right boxes being ticked, added the All Blacks coach.
"In the end it became a straightforward one simply because if Liam reinjures himself and he comes off the bench we can't put someone back on. That was the clincher but we also think he's probably a more of a physical player than Steven at this stage and he's definitely more experienced."
The coaching staff gave no thought to upsizing their loose trio to combat the Boks' massive unit and were happy to stick with a one-two punch of Cane and backup Matt Todd.
"We understand that South Africa have got big loose forwards, but [Francois] Louw is very good over the ball for a big man and we feel like we need somebody who can get over it as well," said Hansen.
The All Blacks are on a six test winning streak this year and haven't lost on Eden Park since 1994 in a run spanning 31 internationals. The Boks come in having won nine straight tests on the trot themselves, including record thumpings of the Pumas (73-13) and Wallabies (38-12).
HOW THEY LINE UP
NEW ZEALAND: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Daniel Carter, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Matt Todd, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau.
SOUTH AFRICA: Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux, JJ Engelbrecht, Jean de Villiers (c), Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar; Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Flip van der Merwe, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Gurthro Steenkamp, Coenie Oosthuizen, Juandre Kruger, Siya Kolisi, Jano Vermaak, Pat Lambie, Jan Serfontein.