I don’t know if Dane Coles is still getting around in that old Mazda.
I don’t cover the Hurricanes anymore and don’t see players darting in and out of the carpark.
The All Blacks always used to stand out, obviously, in their sponsored Ford utes. The Barrett boys were an even more special case, with their Mustangs.
Even blokes who weren’t on the All Blacks’ books were able to rustle up free sign-written utes from somewhere.
The most conspicuous car in the lot, though, was the ageing Mazda station wagon.
It wasn’t beaten up or dirty, it didn’t rattle or blow smoke. It was just the kind of modest Japanese import that so many young New Zealand families own, to ferry kids around and get to and from work.
Only this one belonged to the Hurricanes’ captain and an All Black of some standing.
Coles is off-contract with the Hurricanes at the end of this season and indicated in a recent interview that retirement is on the cards. He’d like to play a final season for his boyhood club – Paraparaumu – and then limit his involvement with rugby to being an enthusiastic dad.
The fact Coles is happy to fade from public view is the precise reason why New Zealand Rugby (NZR) should move heaven and earth to keep the 34-year-old in the game.
Coles is one of those guys who remains deeply rooted in the real world. At a time when many All Blacks carry themselves with the swagger of NBA superstars, the veteran hooker is the type of man to keep teams and team-mates grounded.
He’s never sought the limelight. Never wanted to turn heads with his clothes and his car or to influence the masses via social media.
Coles has returned to live in the area of his youth, because that’s where his friends and family still are. His eldest goes to the same school he went to, because that’s what ordinary New Zealanders do.
They keep it real.
Could Coles have had the biggest Ford Ranger going? Could he have sped around in a Mustang too? Sure he could. But that would have meant putting himself above people, making a fuss and attracting attention.
Coles will long be remembered for his rugby skills. For his combativeness and obvious love of playing and for some tremendous press conference one-liners.
But his greatest contributions have been made behind the scenes. In the innumerable team meetings and in those dressing room moments when he gently pricked the odd inflated ego.
As rugby becomes more professional and goes further down an NFL-type model, with more coaches and support staff and a greater complication of playing roles, the more we need men to cut through all the bluster. Men of action who just want to get out there and batter their opposite number.
Dane Coles is one of those men.
A man connected to his community – and reality – and who values mateship and a beer with the other team afterwards.
Rugby in New Zealand needs to retain these values. It needs to remember that it’s just a game and not the be-all and end-all. Its elite players need to know they’re custodians of a storied jersey and not a commercial brand of their own.
Teams all have professional development officers these days, tasked with helping players develop skills and interests and revenue streams outside of rugby. They’re also sounding boards for those who might be battling emotionally and don’t feel able to confide in a coach or team-mate.
Coles has said the media isn’t for him, despite a turn of phrase and ability to cut through all the waffle that would translate well to television. He also reckons coaching’s not his bag either.
You imagine he’ll be a fine grassroots coach, though, looking after kids’ club teams and instilling a love of the game and values that will last a lifetime.
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