All Blacks and Hurricanes hooker Dane Coles has dropped a major hint that 2021 may be his final year of professional rugby in New Zealand.

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Coles is off-contract with New Zealand Rugby at the end of this year, but the 34-year-old suggested this season could be his last hurrah while speaking to RNZ ahead of the upcoming Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

“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 said.

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“It’s always a special time being back with the lads. I’ll try not to dwell on it [last season with the Hurricanes], I’ll just try and contribute to the group and I’ve still got that same desire to perform and to help the team out.”

RNZ reports that Coles had planned on retiring from rugby entirely at the end of 2021, with last year’s unorthodox season forcing him to survey his options.

While he hasn’t completely committed to hanging up his boots by the end of the year, Coles noted that winning a Super Rugby Aotearoa crown with the Hurricanes “would be the ultimate send off”.

“It would mean a lot. It would mean more than a lot. It would be the ultimate send off and we’re working hard to try and achieve that.”

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Should Coles step away from the game this year, the All Blacks would face the prospect of heading to the 2023 World Cup in France without one of their most experienced players.

With 74 tests to his name, Coles has been a key part of the All Blacks squad since his international debut in 2012.

He started in New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup final victory over Australia, ahead of the great Keven Mealamu, and regained his place in the All Blacks’ starting lineup last year after falling behind Codie Taylor in the pecking order at the 2019 World Cup.

Taylor stands as the obvious candidate to fill Coles’ boots if the latter calls time on his career, while Asafo Aumua continues to develop as a long-term prospect for both the All Blacks and Hurricanes.

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Beyond those two, the only other hookers in New Zealand with All Blacks experience are Liam Coltman and Nathan Harris, neither of whom have caught the eye in recent times, whether that be through lack of form or injury.

Experienced rake Ash Dixon was a standout at both Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup level in 2020, but, at 32 years of age, a test debut might be beyond him.

The likes of Kurt Eklund and Andrew Makalio have also impressed, as reflected in their selections in the North and South Island squads last year, but the All Blacks remain without a clear third-choice hooker to fill the potential void that Coles will soon leave.

Whether Coles could be persuaded to stay onboard through until the next World Cup remains to be seen, but the veteran front rower said playing at that tournament in two years is still a possibility.

“Never say never,” he told RNZ. “Especially with Roger [Tuivasa-Sheck] coming over to rugby, it would be awesome to play with him. I’m not ruling out anything, I’m likely to keep going as long as I can until the coaches say that’s enough.”

For now, though, Coles remains intent on helping the Hurricanes deliver their first championship since 2016, with the Wellington franchise kicking off their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign against the Blues at Sky Stadium on February 27.

“I still love playing for New Zealand and still passionate about it. I’m still driven to get there and it all starts by performing for the Hurricanes.”

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