Dane Coles upholds the expectations and obligations of being an All Black
As a journalist, I try to dislike everyone that I write about equally.
Some I actually will like. Many others I definitely won’t. But the intention is to treat them all the same.
But, despite myself, I love Dane Coles.
I love what he says, I love what he does and I especially love what he represents.
If I were the All Blacks’ coach, Coles would be the first player picked in the squad.
Not always to play because, at 36, the Hurricanes hooker isn’t capable of being on the park as often as we’d all like.
But that doesn’t diminish his value to the team.
It’s not so much that Coles loves to win. It’s more about how much he hates to lose.
I’m not sure how common that is among professional athletes. I suspect many are in sport for the money – and associated trappings – rather than the competition.
Not so Coles.
We don’t really do backseats anymore. Yes, we have senior leadership groups, but they’re more of the caring and sharing variety these days.
Everyone in teams now is – theoretically, at least – equal and special and we have to care for the individual if we want the collective to succeed.
There’s merit in all that and a tidy living, particularly for those in the team building or psychology businesses.
Coles, though, is your archetypal member of the backseat.
The guy who presides over team culture, issues fines and punishments, educates youngsters and pulls recalcitrants into line.
He is the type of man who instils in others what it means to be an All Black and the expectations and obligations that come with it.
As an aside, I believe that’s a role New Zealand Rugby should contract him to, once his playing days are done. Whether it’s with provincial or Super Rugby rookies or the All Blacks themselves, Coles would be an ideal cultural ambassador.
I don’t see him as a head or assistant coach, but he definitely has a lot to teach about how to keep playing like an amateur long after rugby becomes your job.
Rugby is a bit more nuanced than it was when Coles first started playing it for a living.
But it remains true that if you tackle harder and run harder and – in his individual case – niggle harder than the opposition, then you give yourself a better chance of winning.
That’s why, even at his advanced age and with injuries taking an increasing toll, Coles remains of immense on-field value to the All Blacks as well.
This is a team brimming with skill and talent. If it lacks anything, it’s a hard edge. A refusal to back down and not be cowed or intimidated.
Coles makes the game personal and refuses to yield to anyone. That’s a trait more athletes should have and why he can make an enduring contribution to rugby, long after he’s done playing.
Most All Blacks are incredible physical specimens. Honestly, stand next to someone like Ofa Tu’ungafasi and tell me you’ve seen a bigger human.
Coles could pass for a club player, but he has willed himself to compete against the best.
As long as he can keep willing that old body into battle, the All Blacks still have a puncher’s chance of winning this year’s Rugby World Cup.
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