The new scrum laws have made hooker one of rugby's most fluctuating positions in terms of skillset.
Pushing in scrums has increased in proportionate value compared to lineout throwing, ball-carrying and working as a fourth loose forward. South Africa's Bismarck du Plessis is the prototype. The next generation of All Blacks hookers, led by Dane Coles, are the guinea pigs. This morning's Rugby Championship-deciding test at Ellis Park will add a crucial chapter into how the hooker role has evolved.
The theory behind the new laws to create a more stable scrum through better binding is admirable and logical. However, putting the ball in on the referee's command tends to emasculate an attacking team. They surrender a key weapon - timing of the strike. The co-ordination and split-second advantage as the halfback feeds the ball, on the hooker's tap for example, is lost. At present oppositions have what amounts to an eight-versus-seven advantage as the attacking hooker concentrates on striking the ball in the channel rather than pushing.
The effect of the law change is the need for robust, bruising hookers who can stabilise a scrum. Coles may have faced that daunting task this morning as an option to replace Andrew Hore off the bench.
Sympathy for Coles is understandable. He's been picked with a view to developing depth in a position commandeered by Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore for almost 11 years. Coles is slightly smaller than the incumbents but poised to provide value ball-carrying, lineout-throwing and beavering at the breakdown. Sound the buzzer. If coaches continue recruiting human rocks at hooker , Coles has the potential to have his career stymied.
Finding a long-term successor for Richie McCaw at openside flanker is another area undergoing such scrutiny. Contenders such as Sam Cane and Matt Todd must tire of having a microscope trained on their every turn.
The hooking spot is Coles' to seize. A battery of other No 2s are behind him but all - apart from 32-year-old Corey Flynn - have the "potential" rather than "heir apparent" tag. Liam Coltman, Rhys Marshall and Nathan Harris - all former age-group representatives - came to All Blacks training camps this season while James Parsons, Quentin MacDonald, Codie Taylor and Ben Funnell have shown promise. One contender is set to win the ITM Cup's Hooker Idol in the coming weeks for an end-of-year tour spot with Hore's expected retirement.
Former All Blacks captain Fitzpatrick stated his concerns about a lack of depth in a recent Herald on Sunday column.
"Coles needs to take his opportunity. He's been in the environment long enough to know what is needed. So what are the alternatives for the end-of-year tour? James Parsons looks useful and has good leadership qualities. Quentin MacDonald is another with promise. I've always liked Corey Flynn but he's suffered so much through injury. Liam Coltman is another with some skills who has been brought into the wider training group. He's got size and bulk and has the advantage of being able to play prop as well."
Former All Blacks selector and technical expert Peter Thorburn can see sense moving to bulkier hookers.
"Under the current laws the emphasis will go on out-scrumming opponents. What about using a 110-115kg prop as a hooker if they're agile and fit enough? It wouldn't take much for the All Blacks selectors to put the word in a few ears at provincial level. That's where someone like Ben Tameifuna might make the transition from prop. Coles is not much smaller than Mealamu and Hore but they're more experienced at manipulating the scrum.
"Others who stand out are Coltman, Marshall, MacDonald and Harris. A lot of the thinking for Steve Hansen and his team will not be so much about a hunch but more about the future they see for those players in their minds as coaches. As observers we can sometimes be influenced by what players do around the field rather than their core tasks. There is talent coming through the ITM Cup and that information will be getting through to the All Blacks camp.
"The crux now is who will join the end-of-year tour."