Rugby: Hansen still raking over Coles

Coach takes punt on Hurricanes hooker who will need to improve discipline

Dane Coles is "the future" as All Black hooker, according to coach Steve Hansen, but the 26-year-old might find the landscape shifts a little over the next 24 months or so.

Coles, the Hurricanes rake, deserves his spot in the All Blacks squad, even if Hansen and co are taking a small risk in starting him against France at Eden Park tonight.

The French are not shy of using intimidatory tactics, and while Coles is a robust individual who is unlikely to become gun-shy, Philippe Saint-Andre and co could gamble on him reacting and giving away penalties, for which he has form, but more on that later.

Coles' previous four tests have come via the reserves bench on last year's European tour. He is playing tonight despite missing large parts of the Hurricanes season due to a fractured eye socket and various other ailments, including a sprained ankle.

Hansen this week admitted he has to take risks to develop players and his squad.

With Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu both nearing 35 and the end of their careers, hooker is the one position he has to take a punt on.

If not Coles, who else? The reality is that his competition for the black No2 jersey is either too old, out of favour, or a few years away.

The Crusaders have two contenders in Ben Funnell and Codie Taylor, and the Highlanders have Liam Coltman, the distinctive shaggy-haired player with beard to match.

All three are likely to have big futures. Funnell, a cousin of the Whitelock brothers, is an all-action 23-year-old who will improve with a bit more strength training and maturity. Taylor, 22, is extremely quick for a hooker and was a member of the 2011 New Zealand Under-20 team which won the junior world championship, while Coltman, 23, has impressed during his first Super Rugby season despite having limited opportunities behind Hore.

James Parsons, 26, has impressed at the Blues this season and kept Mealamu on the reserves bench once the former skipper returned from his extended break.

Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot, 27, played the last of his three tests for the All Blacks against Ireland 12 months ago, but appears to have fallen from favour. Fellow Chiefs player Rhys Marshall is heading the other way but is only 20.

The other possibility is another Crusaders player, Corey Flynn, but, like Hore and Mealamu, his age is counting against him now.

A member of the All Black squad which won the World Cup, Flynn has 15 caps (a constant series of injuries prevented him from winning more), but at 32, is no longer a long-term prospect.

Asked whether Coles was a long-term option this week, Hansen said: "Obviously he's a young bloke and we're pretty happy with how he's performed thus far. If he continues to play like that he'll have a long-term plan. It's up to him now. The door is open and he's just got to walk through it. I'm sure he'll do that, he's got all the skills and the mental capacity to play the game."

Hansen later said: "We've already said this year we have to take some risks and give people opportunities to play and establish whether they're the future or not and that's what we're going to do."

Discipline has been an issue for Coles. He was cited for his part in a brawl in last year's North v South match in Dunedin but appears to have improved in this respect. Thankfully, he has also put his off-field issues behind him. In 2009, he was convicted for fighting in public and drink-driving, prompting a one-match suspension and fine from the New Zealand Rugby Union, who also ordered him to undertake alcohol counselling.

It was a harsh but valuable lesson for Coles, who was born and raised in Paraparaumu.

"I was a young fella from the Kapiti Coast and wasn't really used to the limelight," he told media last year.

"My name got dragged through the papers a lot and it hurt my parents as well. I just never want to do something like that again to harm my family.

"I've matured a bit and I kind of know the consequences now," said the hooker.

"If you're in the public eye you've got to watch yourself."

Tonight he has the opportunity to take his game to the next level and put some distance on the chasing pack.

- APNZ

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