When Warren Gatland was trying to niggle the All Blacks' last week about their growing injury dramas, it was all water off a duck's back for coach Steve Hansen.

Hansen is going to verbally thrust and parry with Gatland for the next nine weeks - attempting to directly or indirectly allude to some kind of flaw in the other.

It's all part of the theatre and Hansen has seen it all before - he doesn't lose sleep about this sort of stuff, especially when Gatland was clutching at straws a little bit.

The All Blacks aren't doing it tough in relation to their casualty ward, with one exception. And that's Dane Coles. His continued absence from Super Rugby and uncertainty about when he'll be back is, possibly becoming, a touchy point for Hansen at the moment.


He can afford to shrug his shoulders about Kieran Read. The skipper, as he said this week, might be short of rugby coming into the first test but he'll be in good aerobic shape as his injury allows him to train fully.

It's not quite the same as playing, but Read can pull it off - battle his way through 80 minutes of test football after a six-week layoff.

Ditto Jerome Kaino, who reckons he might be tracking ahead of expectation and could possibly play for the Blues against the Lions.

Israel Dagg and Ben Smith have both shown the capacity to come back to test football at full noise even if they are light on game time and Hansen won't really have any concerns about the general readiness of his key men.

But Coles is a different kettle of fish because he has the potential to be a significant point of difference in the series.

Gatland said when he announced his 41-man squad that he felt the forwards he'd picked had the skill-sets to match the All Blacks in the pass and catch stakes.

"You're trying to find areas where you're going to have an advantage and New Zealand always feel that their difference is their tight five and their ability in terms of ball handling," he said.

"We feel we've got a tight five that can match them, we feel we've got a tight five who are going to be excellent at the set-piece, but also have the ability to get around the park and have good hands and strong ball-carrying ability."

Maybe the Lions do indeed have good ball-handling tight forwards, but they don't have anyone quite like Coles in their midst.

There is good then there is Coles who at times plays with more finesse and creativity than Daniel Carter in his prime.

What Coles can do borders on the ridiculous and throughout last year there were occasions when his near miraculous handling, pace or step, saw the All Blacks score tries that were beyond the imagination.

It's the phenomenal skill levels of players such as Coles that make the All Blacks the team they are. He can turn a game with one play, do things that no other hooker in world rugby can do and by beating players in the wider channels and offering an offloading game of the highest order, he makes the All Blacks an almost impossible side to contain.

His brand of magic will trouble the Lions and that's a big reason why Hansen wants Coles on the park.

The other is that they don't have the sort of depth at hooker that they do elsewhere. If Coles doesn't come right, Codie Taylor will start.

There's no dramas with that. Taylor is a good player and has enough experience to be certain he won't go all wobbly-kneed at the sight of the Lions and the pressures the series will bring.

But hookers rarely go 80 minutes these days and this is the concern for the All Blacks - they don't have an experienced third hooker.

They don't have an obvious choice to back-up Taylor and the difference between heading into a test with Coles and Taylor as the hooking package as opposed to Taylor and whoever, is significant.

The whoever comes down to a choice between Nathan Harris if he can get a few games under his belt in the next weeks and Liam Coltman, who toured with the All Blacks in November last year.

In time these two have potential to become good All Blacks, but the Lions are here at the start of June.

There's a bit of time yet for Coles to get back on the track via Super Rugby and play his way back to game fitness ahead of the tests.

But the biggest worry of all is that no one can be sure when he's likely to play again and it is the not knowing that will ultimately be what is making things a little painful at the moment.