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'Like dad playing with the kids': Coles explains All Blacks' struggles

By Tom Vinicombe
Dane Coles on the move against Italy. (Photo by Alfredo Falcone/Photosport)

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Experienced All Blacks hooker Dane Coles believes that while it may have taken him and his teammates time to find their feet against a feisty Italian side in Rome, the at times untidy win was an important step on the younger brigade’s introduction to test rugby.

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Just four players in the starting line-up had 20 or more test caps to their name, with the majority making their first appearances against European opposition. Coles, with almost 80 appearances for the All Blacks to his name, was obviously not in that same boat.

Given the relative inexperience of the side, it was not a huge surprise that the team struggled to assert any dominance early in the game, with too many players pushing passes that weren’t on and perhaps not respecting possession.

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Who was the top performer for the All Blacks from their win over Italy?
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Who was the top performer for the All Blacks from their win over Italy?

According to Coles, who was making just his fourth test appearance of the season after tweaking his hamstring earlier in the year, that may have been a product of the tries coming so easily against the United States earlier this month, when a similarly junior All Blacks side scored three times in the opening 10 minutes.

“I think, especially with the States, because we started so well, all those young boys probably had a little bit of expectation it was going to flow into the Italy game, I reckon,” Coles reflected. “But Italy play a lot of quality opposition. They’re seasoned veterans.

“You could see the way we tried to play straight away, throwing 50-50 passes and stuff like that [without] earning the right. Every game’s different at test match footy and I reckon they’ll take a huge amount out of it. I hope they do. They’ll definitely be better for it.”

The first quarter of the game was littered with handling errors, with the fast-approaching Italian defence making any expansive backline play especially difficult – although it didn’t stop the young All Blacks backs from trying.

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Coles, the seasoned pro that he is, did his best to keep his teammates grounded and focused on doing the tight work first, to ensure the side built ascendency before trying to break the Azzurri apart – although it took a few conversations before the message set in.

“I was trying to tell them, trying to tell the group,” Coles said. “You don’t want to see them make mistakes and I suppose me and Sammy [Cane] – and Luke Jacobson did a good job – [were] just trying to bring them in and just see what’s working and what’s not and we were giving them a little bit of direction but it just probably took a while to get through some of those ears.

“And we were all guilty of it, it wasn’t just the young boys, it was a collective thing. There’s no blame game here. I carried and gave away a stupid penalty and stuff like that.

“They’ll be better for it and once we dissect it [on Monday], there’ll be a few things that can stick out to, I reckon, make them better rugby players. There was no panic out there, which was good. It’s just the things we were saying were taking a little bit longer to take on board – a bit like my kids. It was like dad playing with the kids.”

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And while ‘dad’ may have had some minor frustrations on the field, he suggested that there was no benefit to bringing the mood down post-match and that the All Blacks celebrated the win as they would like any other match, with any proper analysis to be saved for later in the week.

“I think the last thing we wanted to do is go in there and be real sour and heads down,” he said. “I reckon those boys will probably feel it more than anyone. They went out there, things weren’t perfect, but we still won the test match. Obviously, we didn’t do as well, execution-wise, as we wanted to but at the end of the day, those boys put on the black jersey, they got the win, and we celebrated it as the All Blacks do.

“The review that will come, that will dissect that stuff and get the learnings but it’s always a happy changing room when there’s an All Blacks win, I reckon. I think it’s a down buzz if you get in there and you’re kicking the walls and blaming players and having a go.

“We sat down and had a few beers, they came into the changing room and we experienced that test match footy kinda relationship with the other country as well so that was good.”

Coles is one of the few players in the starting line-up that will likely feature in at least one of the All Blacks’ remaining tests for the season – although the 34-year-old faces some fierce opposition from young rakes Samisoni Taukei’aho and Asafo Aumua to back up first-choice Codie Taylor.

The All Blacks take on Ireland this weekend before finishing up their season in Paris.

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