Dane Coles (Getty Images)
London - Dane Coles credits retiring All Black Keven Mealamu for helping him to become the world's leading hooker.
Coles should be the starting No. 2 when New Zealand plays Australia in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday at Twickenham, and Mealamu ought to be in the reserves, ready to go on in the last quarter in what will be his 132nd and last test.
Asked on Monday what impact Mealamu had had on him, Coles said, "Massive. He's the guy I looked up to, watching footy. To actually be in the same team.
"I've had countless conversations with him over the years to improve my game. The place I'm at now, he's probably the main reason why I've had a chance to play in the All Blacks for a little while now.
"I can't put in words how much he means to me, and what he's done for me. He's a special man."
Another hooker was responsible for making Coles seriously consider becoming an All Black. It took Andrew Hore to be controversially pushed out of the Hurricanes in 2011 for Coles, Hore's backup for three seasons, to become a regular starter for the Super Rugby team in 2012.
That year, he was invited into the All Blacks training squad, and made his debut on the November tour of Europe.
Hore, the backup to Mealamu in the All Blacks for years, retired after the 2013 tour of Europe, and Coles was told by the national coaches to bulk up to add some heft in the scrums and breakdowns.
When he did, he lost nothing in speed. Effectively a fourth loose forward for New Zealand, Coles took over from Mealamu as the starting hooker during England's mid-year visit in 2014. Coles' dynamism, scrummaging, pinpoint throw-ins, and willingness to play to the edge quickly made him the world's best hooker.
At his first Rugby World Cup, he's relatively fresh, as he hyper-extended his right elbow and didn't play in March and April. Two months ago, he burned off the Wallabies' defence from 40 meters out to launch the five-try rout at Eden Park.
Having played in both tests against the Wallabies in August, Coles knows first-hand how much their scrum has improved from last year.
"I've got a huge amount of respect for the way they go about their work," he said. "They work hard for each other, and we've got a pack that does it, too.
"They've taken their scrum to another level, put in a lot of work to being a dominant pack, so we've got to do the work during the week to counter that."