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'The carcass is all good': Dane Coles reflects on long-awaited return

By Tom Vinicombe
New Zealand’s Dane Coles

All Blacks hooker Dane Coles has bounced back from more injuries than most, with the 34-year-old, making his starting return to the team in their 47-9 win over Italy over the weekend.

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Coles was fit and firing when the test season kicked off and after starting against Tonga and featuring off the pine against Fiji, he was set to again add impact in the All Blacks’ final test of their July series before he pulled up rough in the match-day warm-up and was replaced by debutant Samisoni Taukei’aho.

“Basically, the bus was late for the game,” Ian Foster revealed after that fixture. “We got stuck in traffic and we probably had a quicker warm-up than what we needed and [Coles’] calf’s just tightened so we’ll look at that in the next few days.”

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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?

Coles didn’t feature in either of the All Blacks’ remaining games in New Zealand and then remained at home when the squad travelled to Australia for the Rugby Championship.

It was against the USA Eagles in mid-October that Coles finally made his return to action via the bench, clocking up half an hour of action and touching down for one try.

Given the hooker’s age and history of injuries, it was no surprise that the 34-year-old had some trepidations ahead of his return – especially in the warm-up, where he had suffered his last setback.

“It probably was in the back of my mind a little bit,” Coles admitted after scoring two tries against Italy. “In the USA game, I obviously had the same routine and the first kind of sprint I did, it was in the back of my head but once I got through it, I was sweet as.

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“Just been working hard with Pete [Gallagher], the physio, and Gilly [strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill], just to kind of keep the body going and doing things a little bit differently. I suppose all that matters is getting on the field and that’s when all your work is done so yeah, I’ve had to alter a couple of little things to, I wouldn’t say conserve the body, but just make sure I’m humming for game day. It’s just about being a little bit smarter and working with the trainers to make sure I’m ready to go.”

Coles has signed on with New Zealand Rugby until the end of 2023 and will be hoping to travel to France that year for what would be his third Rugby World Cup. It would be a remarkable feat for a man who’s spent plenty of time on the sidelines due to myriad injuries, including concussion and ruptured knee ligaments.

While the victory on Saturday didn’t come easily, despite the eventual heavy scorelines in NZ’s favour, Coles was ecstatic just to get back out on the park.

“The carcass is all good. The lungs are heaving like usual but pulled up pretty sweet today,” he said following the match. “[It was a ] 2 o’clock game so we jumped in the pool straight after the game which fitted me quite well, to be honest.

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“Tough old battle out there. Obviously, they played with a lot of passion, put us under a lot of pressure in that first 30 minutes and we probably didn’t adapt as well as we like. But I think with the crew that we had, it was a big learning step for a lot of the boys. That’s why they call it a test match. Stoked how we kind of stuck to it and got the win but it wasn’t pretty. Some good learnings for a lot of young boys and some senior campaigners as well. It was all good.”

For the man himself, Coles was pleased with the 50 minutes of action he had against Italy.

“I have very high expectations of myself and I probably felt a little bit extra pressure in that team to kind of lead a little bit more because of the men that we had, with the inexperience of the side.

“I enjoyed it, we had a good game, we went alright. I bloody enjoyed being back out there and having a run, pulling on the black jersey.”

While Coles has spent much of the year at home in Wellington, the All Blacks completed a five-match stint in Australia before the hooker joined the team in America.

Despite the long slog of a year, Coles reported that there didn’t appear to be any signs of tiring teammates in camp, especially with the young teammates he’s lined up alongside in his two matches to date.

“Coming in, I felt like one of those guys that’d been missing out on his school mates and you come in and the boys were just energetic and [had] real good connections,” he said.

“I think both weeks I’ve been involved, there’s been real good energy from the guys because obviously some of those guys haven’t had too much footy.

“I’ve been checking in with a lot of the lads, they reckon it’s gone pretty quick so there’s no social loafing or stuff like that. The boys are really keen to still be in the environment.”

The All Blacks’ tour will come to an end in two weeks’ time, after taking on Ireland in Dublin and France in Paris.

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