"Silence and awe.”
Dan Cole’s dry, self-deprecating sense of humour keeps you on your toes. Usually, his signpost for sarcasm is an impish grin that cuts through his deadpan demeanour.
But here, recalling how he reacted to coming across Martin Johnson during his academy days at Leicester Tigers, Cole’s face remains straight.
“We probably integrated with the first team at 19 or 20,” he continues. “I remember an early session under Pat Howard. It was a clear-out drill. My job was to hold a tackle bag and be a body, basically – getting hit by the senior boys.”
Immediately after Cole was snapped up from junior club South Leicester, just two miles away from the Tigers’ training centre, a certain set of principles were impressed on him. Welford Road favourites Dusty Hare, Neil Back and Richard Cockerill oversaw Cole’s early development.
When he rocketed to an England debut at 22, on the back of a storming season that began on loan at second-tier Nottingham, his coaches were Johnson, Graham Rowntree and John Wells. The Leicester way, which values grounded graft and abrasive forward play more than any other, provided a perfect nursery.
“As a kid reaching the first team, we got to four or five Premiership finals on the bounce,” Cole says. “It isn’t a bad place to learn your trade. Tigers have been renowned for our packs, so if you love that side of the game, you’ll suit the club well.
“Supporters appreciate front-rowers. Coaches want a dominant scrum. Props are not put on a pedestal, though. They don’t tell us that all we have to do is push. We’re expected to do the rest of our work.”
This foundation, and his service since, means Cole is hurting. The 43-0 thrashing against Glasgow Warriors in the Champions Cup two weeks ago encapsulated a trough in Leicester’s recent history that cost Cockerill his job as director of rugby.
Cole would never volunteer as much, but he has become synonymous with Leicester over 171 appearances. The 29-year-old’s measured view on an awkward period carries weight.
“Leicester have been successful forever,” he explains. “Last year and the two years previous to that, we reached Premiership semi finals – I’m pretty sure a lot of clubs would take that.
“For us, the standard is reaching finals and winning them. We’ve had disappointing years where we’ve lost in Premiership finals. The good thing for us – and it’s obviously not that good because we’re outside the top four and we’re out of Europe – is that we all understand this isn’t the norm.
“Other teams might accept being fifth or sixth – losing one big game, winning a big game, losing the next one. We don’t. At Tigers, you aspire to be better than that. You want to be winning trophies rather than being mediocre.”
After Cole’s first Six Nations in 2010, Martin Corry had already recognised his former colleague would go way beyond mediocrity. Corry previewed England’s tour of Australia that summer with the suggestion that Cole “could potentially be the cornerstone of the England pack for up to 10 years”.
Cole promptly dismantled the Wallabies’ scrum that June, and is more than halfway to vindicating Corry’s prediction. Despite serious neck surgery in 2014, he has amassed 72 Test caps – including three for the British and Irish Lions. Eddie Jones has started him in each of his 13 internationals to date. Saturday evening’s renewal of Le Crunch will be the 20th consecutive England match in which Cole has worn number three.
Famously sparing with the label of ‘world-class’, Jones believes Cole has reached the cusp of that coveted bracket by maturing at set-piece and “scrummaging a lot straighter”. Another of Jones’ observations is that quiet diligence is key to leadership. Pondering his own durability in such an abrasive position, Cole agrees.
“It’s a learning process,” he adds. “And I’ve probably learned as much in the past year from Eddie Jones than I ever have previously. You need to take an interest in your body, because your body is all you have in rugby. It’s… not a weapon, but it’s all you have. If you lose it, you can’t play.
“As a front-rower, you’re going to be tired. You’re going to feel battered. If you learn to care about that, you’ll work on your flexibility and mobility, rest, do your stretches and figure out what works for you.
“I’d like to think that I’m a better player now – it might not be the case – than I was last year because of the knowledge I’ve picked up.”
Boiled down crudely, scrummaging at tighthead amounts to wrestling against two 115kg humans simultaneously – spearheading the shove of seven other forwards as the opposition loosehead tries to burrow underneath you. All the while, a referee and a pair of touch judges scrutinise the intricacies of your bind and body position as you attempt to hold firm.
The temptation is for onlookers to judge the contest in black and white terms, to herald a definitive winner and loser – or a cheat and a victim. The truth is, with so many moving parts, the scrum battle usually undulates across 80 minutes. Look at England’s 27-14 win over Argentina in November. Cole received a yellow card for repeated infringements on the stroke of half-time before returning to tame the Pumas in the second period.
“You’ve got to be mentally resilient, to back yourself,” Cole says. “With England, you’ve got the opportunity because the coaches have picked you. You trust in them. As long as your teammates respect you and it’s a two-way thing, as long as you’re doing what the coaches are asking of you, that’s all that really matters.
“You can come under fire for this, this and this, but you have to look at what you can do better and start with yourself. Often you’ll watch a video back and there will be three possible interpretations of what’s going on. If you’re on the wrong end of one of those, you take it on the chin.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but you just have to block it out. You should trust the opinion of Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick over, with due respect, a person writing an article. No offence.”
Lifting his palm, Cole laughs at the double apology, reinforcing his phlegmatic nature. Since the birth of twin sons Henry and Ralph six months ago, the mantra ‘only bad moments, never bad days’ resonates with him. Sulking after a hard day does not feel appropriate with two baby boys to care for, not that perspective is ever a problem at Leicester.
Tom Collett’s name might be unfamiliar even to ardent fans. The mobile, skilful hooker starred for Tigers Academy teams and England age-groups alongside Courtney Lawes and Joe Marler. In 2007 he helped overturn an Ireland Schools side captained by Peter O’Mahony.
A couple of years later, Collett was forced to retire because of nerve damage caused by a dislocated shoulder. But, under Tigers’ guidance, he stayed in rugby and is now their strength and conditioning coach. Collett was best man at Cole’s wedding to wife Isobel in August 2015. According to the groom, he both “knows his stuff” and embodies a rare loyalty.
“The club rallied and looked after Tom, but he’s worked hard,” Cole says. “I think that’s the thing with Leicester. The club looks after you, provided that you put in as well. If you’re looking for a free ride at Leicester, it’s just not going to happen.
“On the other side of things, they will not let you down if you show the qualities that the club is supposed to have. You could be a local and love the club, having watched them as a kid. You could come from the outside and love the environment because your upbringing aligns with Leicester’s ethos. And that’s the way it works.”
Statistics and unseen class
When he is not changing nappies, Cole is a big NFL aficionado. Tampa Bay Buccaneers are his team, with explosive Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack his favourite player. Might he associate more closely with offensive linemen, though – the unheralded units who protect the quarterbacks from pass-rushers?
Over the course of four matches and 257 minutes for England last autumn, Cole made just one carry and two passes. “I-thank-you,” he jokes, with a point of acknowledgment. “And those passes slipped out of my hands.” But don’t let those meagre numbers colour your view of his influence. Besides tallying 31 tackles and steering the scrum, Cole was extremely active. From launching lifters in the lineout to ramming breakdowns, he revels in busy anonymity.
“I’m not the flashiest carrier,” he says. “I’m not the flashiest passer of the ball. But there is some stuff that I do well that I pride myself on, whether that is pushing in the scrum, lineout lifting, mauling, whether it’s clear-outs.
“If I’m stood next to Billy Vunipola in the backline, I’m happy for Billy V to get the ball. I’ll clear out, because that’s a better result for the team than me carrying and getting knocked on my arse and then us losing the breakdown. If there are opportunities to carry, I’ll take them, yes.
“But just carrying to be seen by people to go: ‘Ooh, he’s doing this’? I might be on the floor for as long as it’d take to make three clear-outs, or whatever. It’s that attitude.
“I guess offensive linemen are only seen when they mess up; they get picked on when they give up a sack. Nobody sees them block, block, block. When people look in detail, they see what you do. But in some regards, [props] are often having a good game if they aren’t noticed as well.”
Cole’s quiet contributions will be important over the next two months. Holders rather than hunters, England face a difficult Six Nations challenge. “Last year, with the new coaching staff, there was a feeling that we started from scratch,” he says. “We are Grand Slam champions now, so we will be targeted. You don’t fly under the radar anyway, as England...
“If you look at World Cup cycles, you have to get used to going into games as favourites and winning as favourites. The autumn was probably the first time in a while that the message was: ‘England should win all four games.’ If we didn’t win all four games, by this amount of points, we were terrible.
“Those internal and external pressures shift. Expectations move from being happy at winning games, beating South Africa and beating Australia, to actually believing we should beat everyone. Ireland are as good as anyone, Scotland had a strong autumn. Even Italy beat South Africa. This year will be a harder competition because everyone knows what everyone else is about. Everyone is a stage further on.”
Though Mako Vunipola is a significant absentee, England’s front-row stable looks healthy. Jamie George is more than an able stand-in for Dylan Hartley at hooker. Loosehead Joe Marler has Matt Mullan, Ellis Genge and Nathan Catt under him. Kyle Sinckler is impressing with Harlequins – and has done the same whenever he has replaced Cole from the bench.
The blend of characters is varied, too. Cole does not mind revealing that live scrummaging gets heated – you can imagine spiky tyro Genge enjoying that – but insists the intensity is beneficial.
“It’s co-operative competition,” he says, amused at what sounds like marketing jargon. “That’s the best way of looking at it. In any group, you need contrasting personalities. If there were six people like me, it would be very boring. Coaches do a good job of meshing those traits. And the underlying theme is always getting better.”
Sinckler, who has admitted to growing up in the belief that he was a dinosaur (seriously – look it up), might seem to be a completely different fish to Cole, an understated social media abstainer. Cole reckons Sinckler is “more dynamic than I ever was” and that his muscular, 30-metre bursts ensure he is pushing for a starting spot. Perhaps the Tiger is too modest to recall his own past of barrelling runs.
In any case, France – buoyed by their performances in narrow November losses to Australia and New Zealand – are a dangerous foe to face first up.
“The French have fantastically skilful players in the backline who can offload and offload,” finishes Cole. “Three years ago in France, they went 80 metres to score in the last minute of the game to win.
“But you know they’re going to try to beat you up in some regard as well, whether that’s at the scrum or maul. They take pride in that, especially against England.”
Les Bleus will bring blunt force as well as traditional enterprise to Twickenham. The hosts are fortunate they have such a solid figure on their front line.