Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Dane Coles: Lord of the lineout

Dane Coles has developed into one of the best hookers in the world. Photo / Photosport
Dane Coles has developed into one of the best hookers in the world. Photo / Photosport

At some stage of this Rugby Championship, New Zealand are going to lose a lineout. And when they do, there will be stunned silence.

There was a time - 2009 - when the All Blacks stunned the world into silence when they won a lineout. Back then, it was less painful having a root canal than it was watching the national team muddle through their work from the touchline.

It was all such a performance back then - the theatre of it being at the heart of the dysfunction. There was no urgency to set up or call early; there was the excessive footwork of the jumpers trying to confuse the opposition and then typically, after having had to wait so long, the thrower would miss the target.

It's hard to remember those dark days. Now it's all so quick, so clean, so effortless and so important to the type of rugby the All Blacks want to play. There's a long list of people to whom acknowledgement should be made for this transformation, but none deserve more than Dane Coles.

The All Blacks hooker makes the whole business seem ludicrously easy. He's metronomic - his routine consistent, smooth and faultless. His heart rate can be through the roof, his blood pumping on the back of a fierce physical exchange and yet he never deviates: he calms himself, he sets himself and he nails the throw.

After two Bledisloe Cup tests, the All Blacks are sitting on a lineout success rate of 100 per cent.

The value of that is best appreciated by the contrast with which the Wallabies offer. Their success ratio is 79 per cent, but the qualitative analysis would show that even when they did win the ball, it wasn't with enough precision or control to be useful.

"They had limited opportunity because we disrupted a lot of their set piece and it is hard to get going as a backline when you can't get front foot ball early," said All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster after the 29-9 victory in Wellington. "That is a particular credit to us at lineout time where we delivered poor ball to them."

The All Blacks' dominance at scrum time wasn't quite as obvious or as total, but it was a big effort nonetheless and again, that's down to a collective effort.

But again, there's no dispute that Coles has more than played his part in tightening and refining the All Blacks scrum these past few years.

When he first starting pushing for higher recognition there was consensus he wasn't quite big enough or disciplined enough to make the step up.

In 2013, when Coles started at Eden Park against South Africa's mighty Bismarck du Plessis, the size difference between the two was staggering. It felt like the New Zealander had a long way to go to ever be truly comfortable at the highest level. In fact, it was easier to believe that he would never quite have what he needed.

That is laughable now because Coles has to be close to being the best hooker in the world. He's found the extra bulk that he needed to impose himself in all the physical exchanges and it has robbed him of none of his agility or mobility.

Dane Coles perfected a lineout routine that is now consistent, smooth and faultless. Photo / Photosport
Dane Coles perfected a lineout routine that is now consistent, smooth and faultless. Photo / Photosport

If anything, it has made him more explosive with higher impact. Barely a game goes by where Coles doesn't make some kind of spectacular line break.

He has the footwork and acceleration of the best backs. The timing, poise and mindset, too, and the All Blacks have built his extraordinary skillset into their game plan.

Coles, when he's done his work at the coalface, is encouraged to drift to the wider channels, to play between the tramlines, much like Kieran Read. Out there, he can make plenty happen, and in two tests against the Wallabies, they didn't get a good read on him or work any effective strategy on how to close him down. No one does, though.

The only plan the Wallabies had in relation to Coles was to single him out for a bit of niggle. They obviously felt that if they provoked him, they would get the sort of reaction that would leave Coles in trouble with the referee.

They managed to induce just one ill-disciplined moment where Coles allowed a stiff arm to swing into contact with a Wallaby head at one ruck and a penalty decision was reversed.

As much as he will be disappointed by his actions on that occasion, the essence of Coles is his unorthodox and uncompromising approach, and his abrasiveness and edginess are all part of the package.

That's who he is - an unrestricted, free-flowing sort of player whose ball-playing genius is possible on account of him reverting to instinct. He's not one to cripple himself with indecision and it would be unfair to revel in his instinctive talents only to admonish him when he reacts to what he sees off the ball.

He will forever have to tread that fine line between standing up for himself and others while not going too far. Mostly, he's managed it in his test career so far and if he does concede the odd penalty, it seems a small price to pay in relation to what he brings.

Coles in many ways has come to epitomise what this All Blacks side is all about. He's had to graft and work to make it into the team and his journey has left him grateful for what he has.

His game is built on his ability to do his core role and yet he offers so much more. His skill level is extraordinary and so, too, is his desire.

In Sydney, he wasn't originally in the match day 23, as he was nursing a rib injury that would have benefited from more time off. A serious injury to Nathan Harris late on the Thursday saw Coles drafted to the bench and then two minutes into the test, Codie Taylor came off with concussion.

Coles had to go the distance, which he did, pushing hard to be man of the match in the process.

"He's tough, there's no doubt about that," offered All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. "I don't know whether that's because he's got no brains or he's got too many. I'm not sure.

"But he epitomises the team, I think. He got called in late, he wasn't really expecting to play because we didn't want to play him and came out and played really well and left himself out there on the track.

"And when someone does that for you, I think you can only pay them the biggest compliment that you can. He's a champion, and he played like one."

- NZ Herald

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