WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A storming 20-metre run chasing a loose ball in slippery conditions last Friday was all it took for Dane Coles to convince All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to include the hooker in his squad for the end-of-season tour.
The 31-year-old front row forward had not played since rupturing knee ligaments against France last November, with a niggling calf injury further delaying his comeback.
He played about 16 minutes for his provincial side Wellington against Taranaki on Friday, though, and it was in New Plymouth that he outsprinted two backs to set up the field position for a try that helped his side to a 34-10 victory.
It was his first touch of the ball in the game and was enough for the 56-test hooker to get the nod on Monday for the 32-man All Blacks squad for what the coach sees as a dry run for next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“It feels like my first time, being named again,” Coles told Fairfax Media on Monday.
“There’s just a lot of emotions. As everyone knows it’s been a tough year so to hear your name called out in the All Blacks, even just to be playing rugby, it’s something I’ve really missed.”
Coles said he would be delaying joining the squad for their first test of the tour against Australia in Japan to play again for Wellington in their national championship semi-final against Auckland.
“I didn’t want to go straight to a test match,” said Coles. “I didn’t think that would be the best thing for me and the team.”
Prior to his injury troubles Coles was widely considered the best hooker in world rugby, redefining the position with his pace, handling skills and the ability to get into the open field.
His absence has allowed Codie Taylor to assume the mantle as Hansen’s first-choice hooker and the younger man has lift the level of his performances sufficiently to be a serious contender for the number two jersey at next year’s World Cup.
While Coles was named in the squad for the Rugby Championship, he did not play as he continued to work on his return to full fitness after an injury-blighted couple of years.
Coles, who missed much of the 2017 season with concussion and calf troubles even before the knee injury, said the continuous setbacks had been frustrating.
“The last couple of months has been quite tough because I’ve been so close to coming back,” he said.
“There was three times when I had set times to play and then little setbacks (prevented that).
“I talked to a few people and decided the worst thing I could’ve done is stop, because all that hard work would’ve gone out the door.
“I had a little moan to myself for a day and then jumped back into it and kept chipping away.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney