The Kapiti Coast is calling Dane Coles back, but the All Black has built quite a legacy at the Hurricanes

TAGS:

Mischief seems to find Dane Coles. It always has.

Growing up on the Kapiti Coast, before becoming an All Black hooker looked like a certainty, Coles was sneaking into the henhouse on his pal’s farm to pilfer ammo – no passing car was safe from gooey carnage.

“We definitely found a way to get in trouble!” Coles regales Rugby World. “A mate of mine had a farm and his parents had a chicken coop. We used to get the eggs and go egg cars, stuff like that. And then the cars would stop and we’d bloody run away as fast as we could.

“It is a small town. A few times word got out and they were straight round to my mate’s house. We got in a bit of trouble… So it was a good life lesson!”

Some could suggest Coles is still a fan of chaos and no less feisty for early finger-waggings.

Related: All Blacks name squad for Rugby Championship

We have grown accustomed to seeing him pop up in unexpected areas on the pitch, a grizzled presence in the land of the backs. And when there are shirt grabs and shoving to be had, he’s not far away. Always there’s that sly look too – lest we forget his try against the Blues at the start of Super Rugby Aotearoa, as he smirked at former team-mate Beauden Barrett while running it in?

Dane Coles

Old friends: Coles eyes up Beauden Barrett (Getty Images)

There is something in looking back at those early days, though. They linger a little with Coles. There are echoes of a siren’s call from Kapiti for him.

Coles goes on of his hometown: “All my best mates, guys I’m still friends with, all live there. And I’m actually moving home in the next year or two.

“It’s a great place, a small town, and you just play rugby for the love of the game. A trip into town was like the biggest thing – you felt like a rock star getting the train into Wellington.

“It was just a great place to grow up, real easy-going, and it taught me a lot of life lessons, about always remaining humble and being grateful for what I have. If I ever get big-headed I just go back home and the boys will put me back into line straightaway, you know?

“I am really grateful that I grew up in a small place. I love it.”

Coles has plenty else to be grateful for. First capped in 2012, the hooker would go on to be a must-pick for the All Blacks. In 2015 he was a key figure in the World Cup win. The next year – his seventh with the Hurricanes – he was made captain of a side that had lost Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Jeremy Thrush and Ben Franks. It was him and the kids.

Coles remembers playing a Waratahs team late in that season that had “basically the Wallabies pack”. They were pushed off a few scrums but they kept fighting back. They won 28-17, the moment Coles realised they could claim a first-ever Super Rugby title.

Dane Coles

Big laugh: With Chiefs tighthead Nepo Laulala (Getty Images)

For Coles, that moment they took the title against the Lions, 20-3, ranks right alongside the 2015 World Cup victory. He struggles to separate them in his head. He shouldn’t have to.

But he’s had similar difficulties getting separation from hooking rival Codie Taylor, joking: “I can’t get rid of him!”

The Crusaders No 2 is from the same province, a celebrated son of Levin, just a half-hour from Coles’s Paraparaumu. That two hookers would go on to be successful Test men from a region boasting such a sparse history of producing All Blacks is astounding.

Related: Jimmy Gopperth, the classy Kiwi at Wasps

“I don’t think there was anything in the water or what we ate,” Coles laughs. “We’re from a very small union and we are very proud. It’s awesome. We get on really good and there are not too many who make it from Horowhenua-Kapiti. So it’s awesome to see another guy from there on the big stage, especially another hooker, to go to World Cups. It has been pretty cool.

“I was just starting out in professional rugby and you would hear about this young hooker from Levin who was making New Zealand Schools. The next thing you’re in the All Blacks together! The smalltown bond’s been pretty cool.”

Coles goes on to explain the merits of slogging it out in the lowly Heartland competition, in which largely amateur players give their all. He’s been on the receiving end of 100-point hammerings.

Dane Coles

What a view: Coles training with New Zealand in Japan (Getty Images)

But the wonderful thing, he adds, is that wherever players go on to they should always have a connection with their hometown unions. You carry a sense of representing people who first started trying to mould you into the person you now are. Coles feels a need to give back to them when he can.

The Hurricanes can reap the benefit of this too. Sure he has performed wonderfully on the park for the franchise, being a leader, a figurehead and at times a lightning rod for them. However, he is willing to give his time.

In June, the All Blacks media team posted a video of Coles scampering around with young players at the Poneke club in Wellington. Having joined the club as a teenager coming in from the Kapiti Coast, he has kept in touch since. In the video Coles also describes times spent having “a few beers with the old-timers” or chatting away as somewhat therapeutic when things in his career have wobbled.

Related: North v South: What would the England teams be?

In recent years Coles has known real issues with concussions, as well as the wreckage of ruptured knee ligaments. Missing out on the 2017 Lions series; damaging his knee in a Test series with France – he has had sour spells. At the height of his concussion troubles, Coles could jog for half an hour and then be bed-bound for what felt like eight hours.

He derives a huge amount of pride in taking his recovery seriously but then coming back swinging when fit. To get to this stage of his career, with the accolades he has, the 33-year-old is proud that he fought for it all.

Dane Coles

Flying high: While facing the Blues (Getty Images)

Coles says he is not one to look back and think “what if?” He describes pain as part of the gig. He admits he has had times when he felt sorry for himself, but look at all the fine things he’s achieved.

There’s time for looking ahead, though. When his stint with the Hurricanes is eventually over, Coles is considering a pole-slide into a new field: firefighting.

“I’ve been in touch with a few people and when I do get to the end of my career it’s something I look forward to doing,” Coles says of putting out flames.

“The team-environment element is quite appealing. Obviously being a rugby player you’re working as a team, but this is also something completely away from rugby. It would be out of my comfort zone and I suppose you have to be driven to do it.

Related: An offbeat Q&A with Beauden Barrett

“I’d want to get into rugby in some way too, like with a first XV on the coaching side, getting away from the professional scene and into something completely different. That has driven me.

“The rugby team environment is tough to lose. You hear some pretty sad stories. The team dynamic thing: you just gravitate towards your mates, doing things together and taking responsibility for your actions. There are so many good things about what rugby teaches you. I can’t speak for everyone, but with the rugby environment you’ve just got to cherish it and when it’s time to move on you’ve just got to get into it, get stuck in, look forward to the next challenge.”

Does he think about what is next more than when he was younger, owing to the horrific back catalogue of injuries?

“Definitely, mate. All the time. Every week you probably find yourself thinking about it. At the back-end of my career it’s important I focus on it – I’ve got to make sure I plan and look after my family as well. That’s what drives me towards the next stage of my life.”

Dane Coles

Laying it off: While facing Ireland at the RWC (Getty Images)

There’s the rugby to conclude first, though. Which means plenty more opportunities to see Coles in flight.

He laughs at how novel the idea of a hooker playing out wide still seems to some, 25 years into professional rugby. Though he does admit that the use of forwards in the wide channels suits the Hurricanes’ personnel anyway – with him and Asafo Aumua and Ricky Riccitelli the hooking options – maybe us, the public, are slow to pick up on tactical trends. The All Blacks have also changed their set-up a few times, with Coles being a weapon in the middle. It depends on an individual’s skill-set.

Maybe there is still the ‘meathead’ stigma about front-rowers, Coles says. It may always be there. Maybe it will help players like him catch you unawares.

He adds: “You’ve got to evolve, mate. If front-rowers can pass and chip-kick, add little bits to the game, it’s great for the game, it evolves the game.”

Coles also laughs about his evolution as a father: some days he gets it right, some days not. But he loves it. What can his three kids get up to, back in Kapiti?

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.