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All Blacks Watch - Hookers

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All Blacks Watch - How are New Zealand's hookers faring in Super Rugby?

If past history is anything to go by, the All Blacks will select three hookers to take to Japan later in the year to try and defend their World Cup.

There likely won’t be room for any challengers to force their way into the All Blacks once the first squad of the year is named for the Rugby Championship as Steve Hansen will want to use the same three hookers throughout the season. That leaves Super Rugby as the last opportunity for aspiring All Blacks hookers to make their mark on the selectors.

At the half-way point in the season, we’re checking in on how the potential call ups are faring for their Super Rugby teams.

The incumbents

Dane Coles

Test caps: 60
Super Rugby team: Hurricanes
Minutes played in 2019: 294

It wasn’t that long ago that questions were raised over whether Dane Coles would ever take the field again. Two concussions in 2017 kept him out for much of that year and a torn ACL upon his return side-lined him for a good portion of the 2018 season too, so the mere fact that Coles is still playing Super Rugby is a huge achievement.

Debuting in 2012, within three years Coles had instated himself as the All Blacks first choice hooker and started in all three knockout matches during the 2015 World Cup. During his time out of the game with injury, Codie Taylor usurped Coles as New Zealand’s incumbent, but Coles still has plenty to offer the team.

At 32 years of age and with over 100 Super Rugby caps to his name, Coles is comfortably the most experienced of New Zealand’s hookers. His stocky build but quick feet has paved the way for a new breed of hookers – bona fide athletes who are as comfortable hitting rucks as they are ranging in the wide channels.

Coles has been used sparingly for the Hurricanes this season, notching up five appearances. With the likes of Ricky Riccitelli also on the books – who spent much of 2017 and 2018 at hooker for the Hurricanes in Coles’ absence – there is little need for Coles to playing every game and racking up minutes. Limited game time also means that Coles is better placed to peak during the international season and will be less likely to incur another serious injury.

The Hurricanes lineout has been operating efficiently with Coles throwing in. This is a great sign, given the relative inexperience of the second rowers that the Hurricanes have at their disposal.

Coles’ work in open play is as good as it’s ever been. He’s making more offloads than the other regular hookers in New Zealand and also busting more tackles. Where Coles has stood out the most this year, however, is in the tighter areas of the game. He’s making more pick and drives than the other hookers and pilfering the ball at the breakdown more effectively.

Taylor may well have taken over from Coles as the first-choice All Blacks hooker, but with some more game time, we could well see Coles return to being the top dog. Then again, having an experienced player like Coles coming off the bench to close out a match could be in the All Blacks’ best interests.

Codie Taylor

Test caps: 41
Super Rugby team: Crusaders
Minutes played in 2019: 155

Although originally backing up Coles at the international level, Coles’ run of injuries gave Taylor the chance to stake his claim as the best hooker in the country – and he took his opportunity with open arms.

Taylor was selected to start in the key matches at the end of the 2018 against England and Ireland, even once Coles was back to full health.

Whilst Coles may have started the movement that saw more sizeable but equally as mobile hookers taking the field for New Zealand, Taylor seems to have perfected the art and is an incredibly effective cannonball on either wing.

2019 has been a slow start for Taylor. Because of Taylor’s hefty workload last year, his return to action in Super Rugby was delayed, which means that he’s played fewer minutes than the other starting hookers. In his absence, Andrew Makalio and Ben Funnell shared the duties at the Crusaders but it’s clear who’s still the first choice.

Like Coles, the limited game time should actually work in Taylor’s favour, provided that he’s given enough time to work himself into top form. Whilst many Super Rugby players tend to peak on the international circuit at the time of the Rugby Championship, Taylor’s delayed return should see him hit his strides during the Rugby World Cup.

Taylor has been showing off his full range of skills for the Crusaders, even after his belated start. He’s clocking up the highest average run metres of New Zealand’s hookers – courtesy of attempting more runs than the others, and is also making the most linebreaks.

He’s also getting his hands on the ball more than his competition, touching the ball almost sixteen times a game – five times more than Coles and almost ten times more than Nathan Harris. With this increased amount of possession, however, also comes greater handling errors and turnovers conceded.

It’s in the core areas where Taylor is perhaps not quite as strong as New Zealand’s other crop of hookers. While the Crusaders scrum is operating well, their lineout performs poorly when Taylor is throwing the ball in. 76% is simply far too low a success rate but this could simply be due to Taylor’s decreased game time with his team.

There’s certainly a lot to like about Taylor, and his wide skillset means he’s a perfect modern forward. With Coles finding his feet again, however, Taylor will have to work on his lineout accuracy if he wants to be the starting All Blacks hooker come the World Cup. New Zealand simply can’t afford to give away the ball at the set piece against teams that are well versed at retaining the ball, such as Ireland and England.

Nathan Harris

Test caps: 20
Super Rugby team: Chiefs
Minutes played in 2019: 373

If it weren’t for an unfortunate injury, Nathan Harris could well have established himself as the All Blacks selectors’ preferred hooker come the World Cup.

Harris made his debut for the All Blacks when he was called into the squad as injury cover for Dane Coles during the 2014 Rugby Championship. When Harris suffered a serious ankle injury in the All Blacks’ game against the USA Eagle back in 2014, it ruined his chances of pressing for a more permanent spot in the squad of the end of year tour. Harris also wasn’t able to play in the next year’s Super Rugby season, paving the way for Codie Taylor to earn selection in the All Blacks.

After fighting his way back from injury, Harris was finally named to start in the first Bledisloe Cup match of 2016 but snapped his ACL prior to the game. This meant Taylor earned his first start for New Zealand against top-tier opposition and he went on to play a further nine matches throughout the year. Harris didn’t play another game in 2016.

When Coles later became unavailable due to his injuries, Taylor was the natural fit to step into the starting hooker berth. Harris has never really reclaimed his spot on the totem pole since then and is definitely behind both Coles and Taylor in the pecking order – but his spot in the squad is also not necessarily guaranteed. Still, with his 20 caps, it would take a remarkable effort from players further down the ranks to upset the apple cart.

Harris, unlike the other two incumbents, has had plenty of game time this year and has been slowly building into his work. He hasn’t stood out particularly in any areas but is making the most tackles of New Zealand’s hookers, clocking up over 13 tackles for every 80 minutes played. Harris is also missing more tackles than his compatriots, but that’s a product of being more involved in defence.

Harris may not have any pilfers to his name, but he is getting over the ball at the breakdown and contesting for possession frequently, resulting in a number of forced penalties.

The public have been quick to criticise Harris’ lineout throwing in recent years but the Chiefs lineout is actually operating at close to 90% when Harris is delivering the ball – which is one of the best accuracy rates in the country. This is even more impressive when you factor in that the Chiefs have used a number of players in the second row due to injuries.

Most disappointing to the All Blacks selectors at this point in the season will be Harris decreased industriousness compared to recent seasons. He’s not getting involved in play as much as he has in the past and his figures are well down compared to some of the other hookers.

Regardless, it doesn’t pay to criticise your hooker too much when your lineout is functioning well. Harris has had fewer opportunities on the international stage than the other incumbents which means that he’s never really cemented a place in the squad. Still, providing that Harris stays injury free, it would be a surprise to see him left out of the All Blacks squad.

The challengers

Liam Coltman

Test caps: 4
Super Rugby team: Highlanders
Minutes played in 2019: 427

Liam Coltman earned his first call up to the All Blacks after Harris snapped his ACL during the 2016 Rugby Championship but didn’t make earn a cap until the end of year tour against Italy.

It wasn’t until 2018, when Coles and Harris were unavailable for selection that Coltman made his next appearance for the All Blacks. Coltman has effectively only been selected for the national side when the other incumbents have been struck down by injury – and that’s a trend that could well remain the status quo.

It’s a lot harder to get into the All Blacks squad than it is to get out of it, which is why Coltman’s consistent performances for the Highlanders are yet to see him reap greater rewards.

Coltman is second only to the Blues’ James Parsons in minutes played this season when comparing all of New Zealand’s hookers but he’s also made the fewest handling errors of the players in contention for All Blacks selection and conceded the fewest penalties. He’s also been very effective at the breakdown, securing turnovers and forcing penalties.

Where Coltman has been let down this year is on defence. He’s attempted fewer tackles than the three incumbent hookers but is also missing disproportionately more. He’s still tackling quite well, mind you – just not on quite as high a level.

Coltman does not have the same X-factor that the likes of Coles, Taylor and Harris possess, which means he needs to be very good at doing the basics. The Highlanders lineout is operating at an 85% success rate when Coltman is playing at hooker, which is not terrible by any means, but it’s also a bit too low for international standards.

While Coltman is close to All Blacks selection, he will have a mighty difficult job usurping any of the three incumbents and, unless he steps up his game significantly, will likely have to rely on injuries to get him to the World Cup.

Asafo Aumua

Test caps: 0
Super Rugby team: Hurricanes
Minutes played in 2019: 106

Asafo Aumua is a bit of an enigma.

He first made a name for himself in the New Zealand U20 team with his efforts out in the open winning him praise. People really started to notice the young hooker when he outpaced George Bridge in a Mitre 10 Cup game back in 2017 – so much so that he was taken on the All Blacks end of year tour as an apprentice player.

After being touted as the next big thing, however, Aumua has yet to press on. Still only 21 years of age, there’s plenty of time for Aumua to develop into a world-class hooker, but at present, he’s playing third-fiddle at the Hurricanes. He was taken north last year as part of the extended All Blacks squad so he’s clearly still very much in the selectors’ thoughts.

Aumua has had few chances to showcase his talent in 2019 as he’s being restricted for game time due to the presence of Coles and Riccitelli at the Hurricanes. With only 103 minutes under his belt this year, it’s hard to get a gauge on how Aumua is progressing.

One thing is for sure, when Aumua gets onto the field, he likes to charge at the opposition. Aumua is making more runs per minute played than any NZ hooker except for Codie Taylor, and his metres gained per run is also second in the country (again, to Taylor). He’s busting more tackles than his compatriots and also passing considerably less – all part and parcel for an impact sub.

There’s little to no chance that Aumua will be travelling to Japan later in the year, and perhaps his future with All Blacks could depend on whether or not he’s willing to move franchises in order to secure more minutes.

The left field selection

James Parsons

Test caps: 2
Super Rugby team: Blues
Minutes played in 2019: 588

James Parsons has plenty of professional rugby experience, having achieved the rare double of earning over 100 caps at both provincial and Super Rugby level. The last player to do this was Caleb Ralph, who hasn’t played Super Rugby in eight years.

It’s Parsons’ considerable experience that has seen him earn a pair of caps for New Zealand, against Scotland in 2014 and Australia in 2016. At 32 years of age, he’s also on par with Coles as being the oldest of New Zealand’s current crop of hookers.

Beyond experience, however, Parsons is simply a grafter, willing to do whatever job is required on the rugby field.

It’s therefore no major surprise to see Parsons show up as middle of the pack in many stats – he does a bit of everything but doesn’t particularly excel in any facet of the game. He touches the ball often – second only to Taylor – but doesn’t make a lot of ground when in possession, nor does he bust many tackles.

Parsons also makes the fewest tackles of New Zealand’s hookers – and is shrugged off by opposition more often. The Blues lineout also operates at only 84% when Parsons is throwing the ball into the lineout.

Overall, Parsons’ stats are fairly underwhelming. He tends to get involved in a wide range of areas of the game but is fairly ineffective at what he does. He’s been capped by New Zealand before and could be a worthy squad member, if only for his experience, but the other hookers at the All Blacks’ disposal have considerably more upsides.

Conclusions

Dane Coles, Codie Tylor and Nathan Harris have been used as the All Blacks hookers for the last World Cup cycle with few other players getting any opportunities on the international stage.

New Zealand has perhaps the best one-two hooker punch in world rugby in the form of Coles and Taylor whilst Harris also offers some of the X-factor that the current selectors like in their rakes.

Unless injury strikes, the three incumbents are almost certain to be selected in the Rugby Championship squad and will travel to Japan later in the year with Liam Coltman probably the next in line.

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All Blacks Watch - How are New Zealand's hookers faring in Super Rugby?