Defining night in store for Coles against Boks
His coach thinks he's ready, he thinks he's ready and tomorrow night at Eden Park the rest of New Zealand gets to make up its mind on Dane Coles.
As defining moments in young rugby careers go, it doesn't get any bigger for the 26-year-old Wellington hooker who's spent the last year and a half nudging his way down a road that has arrived at its main junction.
The in-form Springboks await at Eden Park in a clash of mouth-watering proportions. It's No 1 v 2 in the world, it's the Rugby Championship's two undefeated teams putting their records on the line and, on form, it's a footy version of irresistible force meeting immovable object.
The critics are even saying it's a clash that could "reignite" the sport's great rivalry after the All Blacks won six of the last seven tests between the two nations.
It's notable, then, that coach Steve Hansen has gone for Coles, and not gnarly old Andrew Hore, or test centurion Keven Mealamu, to run out at hooker and butt heads with Boks enforcer Bismarck du Plessis.
Big responsibility. Big chance.
Coles understands the former and embraces the latter; as he chatted at the team's Auckland hotel yesterday, the fresh-faced, fledgling test rake gave no indication that he's daunted by the task about to present.
"It's a very big privilege and massive honour," he said, boyish grin and all. "It will be my biggest game to date. They're a very physical side and we've got to meet that battle."
Despite making six of his eight test appearances off the bench, Coles reckons the time is right for him to take on the big role.
"I've been in the environment now for a little bit, I've kind of eased my way into it, and I think I'm ready for the challenge now," he said.
Undoubtedly the Boks will challenge the young man. They'll see his boyish looks, his inexperience, his lack of size - he gives up 5cm, 5kg and all sort of nastiness to du Plessis - and they'll regard it as an invitation to probe.
He'll be waiting.
"They're a very physical side and love a bit of banter," shrugged Coles.
"I've just got to put my head down and go to work. I know I'm probably going to get a few sly comments but I've just got to play rugby."
Hansen yesterday spoke at length about his confidence in Coles.
"We see him as the future," said a coach whose vision when it comes to these things is pretty exemplary. "We think it's time to give him an opportunity in the big ball park and see how he goes."
Coles's success is important beyond just this test. There is talk Hore may retire at the end of this year (Coles, for one, thinks he's got more in him) and Mealamu's body is failing to keep pace with his formidable mind.
Hansen admitted yesterday that the uncertainty around his veteran rakes was a factor in his thinking.
"When you're thinking about 2015 we don't see Horey being there and I don't think he sees himself being there," said Hansen.
He was a little more charitable on Mealamu: "If his body holds up he's a possibility."
All of which leaves Coles with the chance to make the sort of statement that could springboard into a lengthy career.
It's an intriguing prospect.
His strengths are his athleticism and skill level but he's not known as a hard head who pounds away in tight.
His twin mentors will have whispered away in his ear all week the importance of taking care of his core role.
"They've been awesome," said Coles.
"They were the first boys to come up and shake my hand when I was named. I'm very thankful I've got probably the two best coaches in the world for hooking."
This will be Coles' first test against the Boks but he feels like he knows them inside-out.
"All the boys have been talking about the physical battle and that if we're not up to it, especially in the tight five, it's going to be a tough day at the office."
He also has a fair idea of what's coming from du Plessis.
"He's a very physical player, good over the ball, and his running game always takes about three guys with him."
Meanwhile, fit-again flanker Liam Messam, who returns at the expense of Steven Luatua, played down the Boks' size advantage in their loose trio.
With the visiting trio tipping the scales at 349kg, compared to the All Blacks' 327kg, Messam said: "I guess size doesn't really matter. You've just got to go in as hard as you can and get stuck in."
The trick, Messam says, is to meet the South Africans' aggression then take them out of their comfort zone with the pace of the game.
"You've got to get that front-foot ball and the only way to do that is win that contact area but we've also got a way we want to play. We know the challenge and it's going to be massive because they're on their A game."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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