"Shortest Retirement in History" - Dane Coles On His Unexpected Life in Japan, Richie Mo'unga's All Blacks Future & Changing Super Rugby - Ruck

“Shortest Retirement in History” – Dane Coles On His Unexpected Life in Japan, Richie Mo’unga’s All Blacks Future & Changing Super Rugby

When Dane Coles returned to New Zealand from the 2023 Rugby World Cup, he hung up his silver medal with his boots seemingly set to follow. After a decorated career in the iconic black jersey and with his beloved Hurricanes, Coles had plans of riding off into the sunset, never mind a move to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

In a complete u-turn for Coles, his family and legions of fans, the 90-capped All Blacks hooker was unveiled as the newest signing for the Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, one of the leading clubs in the Japan Rugby League One. The signing was an unexpected one, and came about following the injury to Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx at the Rugby World Cup. Marx’s severe knee injury ruled the South African out of the entire 2023/24 JRLO campaign, with Coles in hand to save the scrum back in November.

So Coles put his retirement plans on a season long hold, and cancelled his plans for the 12-11 deafeat to the Springboks to be his curtain call. In what could be poetically described as an encore, Coles put the circumstances into a more straightforward expression. Speaking in a JRLO organised press conference, Coles told RUCK;

“Yeah, shortest retirement in history! Mate, I only had a couple of days (until) a guy Dan Connors (check) a coach over here for Kubota, he was my Hurricanes coach for about 10 years and he’s the one who helped me up. It was all for the experienced like I’ve never done anything different. I’ve always been in New Zealand.

“I brought my family over, so I’ve got three boys and it’s one of the best probably enjoyable seasons I’ve head. This completely different. The Japanese boys, South African boys you’ve got Maori and Aussie boys. It’s just a great environment to be involved in. I’m really enjoying it.

“More downtime. We had a couple of weeks off so you get to explore. But yeah, just the one little adventure with my family but I’m glad I did it. I mean it’s it’s been really positive and enjoying my footie over here.”

Immediately impressed by the standard of rugby, Coles has enjoyed the challenge of adapting to a new style of playing the game. Constantly learning despite coming up to the end of his career, Coles has seen the last few months as an invaluable experience, but admitted that some elements have taken some getting used to.

“The Panasonic (Kubota Spears) boys are getting up to the test, I’ve been really impressed with the level of our game here. So it’s awesome. I think the Kiwi teams and hopefully the Aussie teams coming over (for Cross Border competitions) will, they’ll get something out of it as well. So I think there’s a winning product in Japan to circulate, they can expand the next couple weeks and see where it goes.”

“It’s very good, a lot more running! Maybe less kicking, but a lot more running going on which is awesome, it’s a great brand of rugby. Physicality is up there, but a lot of teams like to use the ball like I said, you’re not smashing into brick walls and everybody is willing to have a go and use the ball a lot more.

“I think i’ll be be a lot more fitter, which is good. Yes so it’s a great brand of rugby, I like it, like I said before, it’s a winning product over here so hopefully in years it can go real global and can sort something out.”

The Japan Rugby League One is a multi-cultural melting pot full of top international talents. With the superstar Springboks clashing against the wildest Wallabies and awe-inspiring All Blacks, the fans out in the Far East are treated to a stunning fixture for each and every encounter. Coles recognised how despite winding time on his playing career, he has savoured the opportunity to play in such an eclectic mix, week in, week out.

“I’ve been loving it. I suppose as a front-rower just trying to chip in where I can with the front row boy and the hookers. but the beauty of the thing is that actually, you’re learning as well because the game is so different over here as a front rower. They scrum differently, see I’m learning a lot as well. That’s good, keeping you on your toes, I had a bit of a touch up after my first game and scrum time, boy!

“So, that actually quite a good introduction to Japanese footie. I love it mate, it’s cool to help out. Even if like the South Africans in our club, the forwards coach might try and learn like their mindset and how they do things.

“And the Japanese way like, it’s great just to learn and do different things and try your hand at I suppose, your skill sets. Been impressed with our skipper, Harumichi (Tatekawa) he’s very good. Really experienced, a real good leader. A great player, and a lot of boys look up to him. So he’s a one guy, there’s a number of guys, but he’s the one who’s stood out. For me as skipper, he’s been a great guy to play for and learn from as well.”

A player that Coles has relished in sharing the pitch with is Japanese front row legend Shota Horie. The hooker still has plenty of gas left in the tank, despite reaching 38-years-old and announcing his intention to retire at the end of the season. Horie is turning out solid performances each week for Saitama Wild Knights, and is certainly respected by Coles following their shared history of clashes, when the All Blacks took on the Brave Blossoms.

“I have been a big fan of Shota, I think we played against each other a number of times. The great skill sets, and he’s still going strong against the Chiefs the other day. So yeah, nothing but respect, I suppose to play it for that long and that consistently at that level. Really have a lot of respect for that guy, been a big fan watching him play for number years. He hasn’t retired yet, so you never know!”

Whilst Coles’ single year singing was an added bonus on the end of a storied career in New Zealand, plenty of top All Black names have decided to depart their homeland in search of pastures new in Japan. A season’s sabbatical is nothing new to fans of Super Rugby, as the JRLO offers an increased salary and alternative lifestyle, that the top players jump at for a brief spell away from New Zealand.

While most top names have historically returned to Super Rugby, and continued on their careers for New Zealand, there was a recent mass-exodus of All Blacks from the country following the Rugby World Cup. A total of 10 players who represented New Zealand in France departed for Japan, with the addition of all-time All Blacks leading appearence maker Sam Whitelock and firery wing upstart Leicester Fainga’anuku heading to France.

A notable departing name is former Crusaders fly half Richie Mo’unga, who at just 29-years-old, is considered to be an early exit of the Islands known as Aotearoa. Also importantly, Mo’unga has agreed a three year deal with Toshiba Brave Lupus, which would enable him to return to All Blacks duties for the 2027 Rugby World Cup should he decide to. However, it’s no secret that New Zealand want their fly half home earlier than scheduled, to which Coles gave his two cents on the subject.

“I should have done it years ago, it’s good for your skill sets, but it’s also probably good for your body too. It’s not as physical as Super Rugby, but there’s a lot more running and you get to definitely use your skill sets a lot more. So I think it’s a lot more good on your body, you get a bigger break. And it’s a great place to live.

“So I think all those things, it’s great for you, for your family, and for your body. I think your probably going to see a lot a lot more of it, because it’s such a great lifestyle to play in Japan. You can see a lot of the South Africans are doing it and going back and playing international footy. So you’re going to see a lot more of it, and it’s great to develop your game and play with a lot of different players from around the world.”

“I honestly don’t know. Yeah. I’m sure he’s pretty keen to maybe try for Tonga, from what I’ve heard of. Yeah, I don’t think he’s pretty keen to play for New Zealand for the next couple of years. But there’s been talks about changing the eligibility rule in New Zealand. So I’ve got no idea. I’m out of the saddle now mate, I’m not going to be one of these former players that kicks up a fuss and says ‘how it used to be’, and all that.

“The governing body New Zealand, they’ll sort it out what’s better for them to pick the best team. I’ll just stand back and just watch. It’s got nothing to do with me now. So that’s up to Richie and New Zealand Rugby to kind of sort out and get the right things in place.”

Coles then opened the floor to discuss the wider issue within New Zealand’s club game, and how Super Rugby is seemingly dwindling in popularity. It is not an uncommon sight to see the fabled grounds of Sky Stadium or Forsyth Barr Stadium peppered with clusters of empty seats, as Super Rugby doesn’t have the same feeling since the four South African franchises split to form the United Rugby Championship.

Coles recognises how something needs to be done, in order to freshen up New Zealand’s Super Rugby landscape. The hooker recognised how the Cross Border matches against Japan’s leading clubs is a solid start, but believes that in order to keep things interesting in New Zealand, Super Rugby needs to commit to a new era.

“Yeah, completely agree. Super Rugby needs something different. We were seeing in the last couple of years… I wouldn’t say that it’s not surviving, but it’s kind of gone down a little bit. So some kind of exposure over here (Japan).”

“But they still can keep the foundation of Japanese rugby, Super Rugby’s not going to come over here and take over. So some sort of championship a couple of teams every year playing a little competition would be nice. But I still think the foundation, and with what they’ve got here, it needs to remain pretty strong as well.”

“Something needs to happen, especially in the New Zealand market. This just becomes a little bit of the same old. The players are not thinking like that, they want to get stuck in and do well for their clubs. A lot of the people over here are watching the European League. I wasn’t even considering it maybe 15 years ago but now with the Six Nations, the European Cup, the way that the game is going over there (I am). So it’s got to be global mate, we need to be pioneers and and think of ways to do things to make are game even better.”

Speaking over Zoom from the drivers seat of his car, Coles spoke to a litany of reporters from across the world. There was an assortment of Australian journalists on the call, who were eager to here the former All Black’s thoughts on the appointment of Joe Schmidt to the Wallabies. The New Zealander left his post amongst the All Blacks selectors, and in January, he had found himself a new role amongst the Wallabies coaching staff.

Admitting that the move was a ‘kick in the gut’, Coles discussed the archaic New Zealand – Australian rivalry. Schmidt’s actions certainly came as a suprise to the front rower, with the head coach set to oversee his first Summer Series with the Wallabies this July, when Wales head ‘down under’.

“He told me that he was retiring, and then he comes out as the Wallabies coach! All I can say is that he’s a great coach, you can see even in the All Blacks that he knows the game. He’s very hard, one of accountability but I recon he can be, just from being in the All Blacks, he can be a great coach. And obviously with Australia not doing too well at the World Cup, international rugby need the Aussies to be dominanting, like what they were.

“So, if he can do that, and I’m sure he’ll get that team up to scratch, it will be awesome. It’s always a bit strange when you see a Kiwi coaching Aussies, back this is the way the international game is now. High praise for him, he’s a great coach. He’ll be good for the game. It’s good to see him still in the game.”

“It’s Aussie and New Zealand, It’s a great rivalry! And so when you have a guy that’s in the All Black environment heading over, hidden over it’s a kick in the gut. So once you kind of get past and understand that, you know, I’d rather see him coaching a teammate, because I know he’s still got a lot to give and he’s a great coach. So it’s good to see him put his hand up. So doesn’t mean I’m going to support him and be happy about it! It’s Aussie versus the All Blacks, so I’ve got an All Black jersey on when they play, but it’s good to see him still in the game. Just hopefully they don’t go too well!