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Where does a healthy Dane Coles fit into the hooker pecking order?

By Tom Vinicombe
Samisoni Taukei'aho and Dane Coles. (Photos by Greg Fiume/Photosport)

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While the performance itself wasn’t necessarily anything to crow about, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster will have been pleased to see Dane Coles and Sam Cane get considerable minutes under their belts in the 47-9 win over Italy over the weekend.

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Having injured his pec playing for the Chiefs during Super Rugby Aotearoa in March, full-time All Blacks captain Cane only made his return to the field for Heartland Championship side King Country early last month. 30 minutes against the Eagles two weeks ago marked his first appearance in the black jersey for the year while the 29-year-old got through a full game in the win over the Azzurri.

Coles, meanwhile, tweaked his hamstring in the build-up to the All Blacks’ third test of the year and after being named in the reserves to take on Fiji, was replaced by new cap Samisoni Taukei’aho. Like Cane, Coles made his return via provincial rugby and then off the bench against the United States before starting against Italy on Saturday.

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Jim Hamilton catches up with former Wallabies scrum-half Will Genia.
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Jim Hamilton catches up with former Wallabies scrum-half Will Genia.

It was an impressive return for the 34-year-old, who scored two tries via lineouts and was named man of the match after leaving the field shortly after halftime.

Coach Foster was more than satisfied with the hooker’s return to action.

“He had his hands on his head after 49 minutes so he looked like he’d given everything, as we expect Colesy to do,” Foster said following the game. “But really pleased for him. He had a big leadership role, along with Sam, particularly in that pack where there’s a number of younger guys in there and overall, they’ll be pretty pleased with their game.”

With just two matches left to round out the All Blacks’ epic 15-test season, Foster and his fellow selectors now have to decide how to best utilise the four hookers they currently have on deck.

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Codie Taylor, with 65 caps to his name, remains the clear first-choice, having started eight games in the No 2 jersey this year. His experience and general reliability puts him in good stead to wear the No 2 jersey against both Ireland and France over the coming two weekends.

It’s who slots in on the bench that is perhaps the more interesting debate.

Coles’ battle with Taylor throughout the compacted 2020 test calendar was one of the more thrilling storylines of the season and Foster was probably comfortable entering the new year that regardless of who started, the All Blacks would have an experienced, proven performer wearing No 2.

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Coles’ long absence, however, might have changed the thinking a little bit. The World Cup is just two years away and that leaves perhaps 20 tests at most before the tournament kicks off in France. Despite Coles’ ability to bounce back from injury, the selectors may be concerned about his longevity and it will be just as important to manage his workload as it will be to ease the more junior hookers into the test arena.

Heading into this year’s campaign, Asafo Aumua was the next cab off the ranks and has been heralded as ‘the next big thing’ for some time now, but the emergence of Taukei’aho has clouded the waters.

Both 24-year-olds are exceptional with ball-in-hand, although Aumua is more of a open-field runner who is almost impossible to stop once he builds up a head of steam, while Taukei’aho flourishes in tight spaces and bucks off would-be tacklers like a cornered rhinoceros.

Tellingly, Taukei’aho wasn’t used in either of the gimmie matches against the USA or Italy (with Aumua and Coles named for both matches, just swapping between starting and bench roles), instead being employed off the pine against Wales in the first-string side. As such, he’s likely a whisker ahead of Aumua in the pecking order.

With Taylor set to start, the safe money would be on Taukei’aho and Coles sharing the back-up duties against Ireland and France, getting one test apiece to round out their seasons. Aumua, who’s chalked up five appearances throughout his first real season in the squad, will have to be content with his year having already come to a close.

Whichever way the dominoes fall, Foster and the All Blacks coaches will be content with where their hooker stocks stand at the end of 2021. Taylor has clocked up ample minutes without being overburdened, Coles has enjoyed a quiet season, which could prolong his test career and young guns Aumua and Taukei’aho have both embedded themselves in the All Blacks environment and look like they could have long careers in the black jersey.

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