While Dane Coles hasn’t explicitly said that 2021 will be his final year playing professional rugby, he also hasn’t ruled it out.

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Speaking ahead of the season, Coles noted that it would be his final campaign with the Hurricanes under his current contract, but that re-signing wasn’t entirely off the table.

“Obviously my last year coming up with the Canes. I haven’t completely ruled out staying on, but I’ve just got to appreciate it this year,” he told Radio NZ.

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Ross Karl is joined by Bryn Hall and James Parsons to look ahead to season 2021 of Super Rugby Aotearoa which kicks off this weekend.

Coles won’t feature for the Hurricanes in their opening match of the season, against the Blues on Saturday evening, but the Wellington-based franchise are well stocked in the key hooker role with former age-grade superstar Asafo Aumua tasked with wearing the No 2 jersey this weekend.

Although Coles, who was voted by Super Rugby Aotearoa players as New Zealand’s ‘biggest grub’ last year, brings more to the team than what he simply offers as a player, there’s every reason to believe that with Aumua and Ricky Riccitelli on the books, the hooking position certainly won’t be identified by any opposition as a weakness in the Hurricanes’ lineup.

At the higher level of the game, however, Coles’ potential absence will be hugely felt.

A run of unlucky injuries hampered the 34-year-old following New Zealand’s successful 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign which kept the rake from featuring in almost half the tests played throughout the following World Cup cycle.

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During that period, the likes of Nathan Harris, Liam Coltman and Aumua all had fleeting opportunities to prove their talents while Codie Taylor took over as first choice in the lineup.

In 2020, free of injuries, Coles was back to his best and reclaimed his spot in the middle of the All Blacks front row. While Taylor could step back into that role should Coles hang up his boots, there’s still considerable uncertainty surrounding the next cabs off the rank.

Harris sat out the entire 2020 season through injury but had fallen to fifth in the pecking order in 2019. Coltman also lost ground last year, being camped behind Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon during the Super Rugby season, while Aumua, for all his talent, is still finding his feet with the Hurricanes.

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The opening round of Super Rugby Aotearoa is effectively the first weekend of auditions for players looking to step into Coles’ shoes, and Aumua and Blues hooker Kurt Eklund are the two with the most to prove.

In Friday’s season-opener between the Highlanders and Crusaders, Dixon and Taylor will go head-to-head.

Taylor, whose involvement on Friday may be prematurely ended due to the need to not overload All Blacks at this stage of the season, is a dead certainty for national selection later this year. Dixon, on the other hand, wouldn’t let anyone down if he were handed a black jersey, but, at 32 years of age, is hardly a replacement for Coles moving forward.

On the reserves bench, the Crusaders will call upon Brodie McAlister while Coltman will be expected to add impact.

While McAlister could be one for the future, the 23-year-old has limited experience in first-class rugby and is in dire need of some Super Rugby starts before he’ll be seriously considered for elevation to the next level. Coltman, with eight caps to his name, still hasn’t nailed his lineout throwing and, until he’s able to regularly and accurately hit his targets, is too much of a liability – despite his strengths at the breakdown and in the loose.

That takes us to Saturday’s match when Aumua will face off with Eklund.

 

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Globally, everyone’s seen the highlights of Aumua causing havoc for the New Zealand U20 side – there’s absolutely no question of his ability with ball in hand. Where Aumua still needs developing is his core skills – at the scrum and in the lineout.

While Coles will be back for the Hurricanes once he’s over the calf niggle that’s kept him out of Saturday’s game, if Aumua can impress against the Blues then there’s every reason to believe that the 23-year-old can make the jersey his own, hold on to the starting spot in the lineup and press his case for greater involvement in the national side.

Eklund, on the other hand, doesn’t have anyone breathing down his neck.

His situation is one of the stranger ones in Super Rugby. Despite being the Blues’ first-choice hooker for much of last year, Eklund found himself without a full-time contract for the 2021 season – because the Auckland side had already signed U20 hooker Soane Vikena, while James Parsons, the man that Eklund replaced last season, was also due to return.

When Parsons called time on his career last month, however, Eklund was elevated to the position he deserved to be in from the get-go and will run out on Saturday as the Blues’ incumbent No 2.

Eklund impressed last year by simply nailing the basics. He certainly doesn’t have the bulk or perhaps the X-factor of someone like Aumua but that won’t necessarily prevent a quick rise up the national ranks.

Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, speaking on the first episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod for 2021, suggested that Eklund could be an All Blacks bolter this year.

 

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“I wouldn’t say he’s a rookie, but I thought Kurt Eklund would be a bolter for me,” he said.

“I  think for a guy who’s probably going to play a lot of rugby, probably in a position where there could be an opportunity for someone that [the All Blacks] might want to bring in.

“Obviously Asafo Aumua is there and Liam Coltman’s been in and around there as well… But, Kurt Eklund played really well last year and looking forward to seeing how he goes moving forward with Jip [Parsons] not being there.”

The Chiefs, meanwhile, have the bye this weekend – which means none of Harris, Samisoni Taukei’aho or Bradley Slater will have the opportunity to advance their cause.

In Harris’ absence, Taukei’aho started the season as the Chiefs’ first-choice but his wayward lineout throws eventually saw Slater take the reins. Like Eklund, Slater isn’t necessarily the most dynamic player but, given how critical delivering the ball into the lineout is, it wouldn’t be a surprise to again see Slater wearing No 2 this year, given that Harris also struggles for consistency at times.

With Dane Coles potentially set to hang up his boots, a great opportunity exists for aspiring hookers around New Zealand to put their hands up and really push for a shot at higher honours. While there are players with X-factor and players that have their core duties down pat, it’s unclear whether there’s a player in the country that is the whole package at this stage in their development – but maybe that belief will be turned on its head by the end of the year.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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