Fortunes can change very quickly in sport as Leicester prop Dan Cole has good reason to ponder one way or another. It’s only last month that he and the Leicester pack were painfully dismantled, bit by bit, at Allianz Park when they conceded a Premiership record of three penalty tries against Saracens and Cole copped a yellow card to compound the misery.
The announcement of England’s Six Nations squad was due soon but factor in a World Cup campaign when the England pack collectively failed to fire as expected in the tight and Cole was beginning seriously to wonder whether he might have come to the end of the road in terms of Test rugby.
Fifty plus England caps and a Lions tour in 2013, it had been a blast, but all good things come to an end. Perhaps it was time for Old King Cole to call for his pipe, call for his bowl and call for his fiddlers three?
On the way home Cole’s phone lit up. It was Eddie Jones dispensing some much appreciated homespun TLC. As a former hooker and paid up member of the front-row union Jones understands that occasionally things can go horribly wrong up front, sometimes for no apparent reason. More often than not at scrum time it’s a collective fault and not attributable to a prop either side of the scrum.
Cole was told to relax, he was absolutely in the England Six Nations squad no question, and what he needed to do now was just concentrate on getting back to basics and keep playing until it came good again. As it almost always does. A welcome vote of confidence from the new England coach who Cole had barely encountered before during his career, the metaphorical equivalent of a hug although Cole jokes “we don’t really do cuddles at Leicester”.
And now here we are heading towards the end of February with two more England starts under his belt and a huge game against Ireland looming into view. The England pack might not be quite dominating in the manner Jones ultimately wishes but against Scotland the lineout was nigh on perfect while the scrummage functioned very well indeed against the Italians. Combine the two and England will be back in business no matter who the opposition are.
Life is sweet again but Cole is taking nothing for granted. It’s not that long ago – in fact it’s two years almost to the day – that he was pumping iron at the gym in Pennyhill Park having missed just one of England’s 45 previous internationals when he suddenly lost all power in his left arm while going through a bench press routine. Something was very wrong.
Scans quickly revealed a bulging disc in his neck between C6-C7 and although he and the medics initially tried complete rest Cole eventually had to go under the knife. Surgeon Peter Hamlyn, who seems to have operated on half the battered Leicester team over the years, performed a delicate procedure to insert a replacement titanium disc. Cole’s career had been saved although it was still a long haul back to full fitness and form.
From that point onwards Cole has taken nothing for granted but refuses to blame the sometimes scandalously extended playing season and demands on top players.
“Yes, fewer games would probably be better for player welfare but we sign the contracts, we agree to it and you get on with it,” says a man whose domestic and Test season will probably end in late June following a three Test tour to Australia. That’s exactly a year after England’s pre-World Cup camp got underway.
For the time being though he is “getting on with it” in the Six Nations as England look to move on from the World Cup. Jones has made it clear that above all else he wants a mean and edgy pack firing on all four cylinders. Get that and everything else will fall into place.
“It’s progressing, we are working hard every day. If you want to be the best pack in the world you have got to have supreme fitness levels, you have got to have the technique and you have also got to have a bit of bottle about you. It is basically the three of those.
“We are having more live scrums in training. Part of Eddie’s ethos in trying to get us to have the best pack in the world is investing a lot of time in the set piece – the lineout and the scrum – they are our main focus areas. Yes there is the breakdown and all around that, but he wants the best scrum and the best lineout so we are spending most of the time we have together focussing around those.
“Eddie has been very positive with us in training. He engages with the lads. He has a way of letting you know where you stand. He’s pretty straight down the line. If something is good he will tell you it’s good, if it’s crap it’s crap. Everyday he’s learning more about what makes people in the squad tick. You bump into him in the corridor and he will ask you a question, he’s building his knowledge of each individual, finding out what makes you work and what doesn’t.”
Graham Dawe, as was well publicised, has been drafted in for a couple of sessions and despite his well-deserved hardman reputation it was the Cornishman’s fast striking and pure hooking skills that England wanted to tap into.
“The essence of hooking is for the nines and the hookers to make the ball available but also what the props can do to help out and help the hookers,” explains Cole. “Obviously the hooker is exposed when he does strike. So you share the weight and the pressure.”
Though of a different generation, Cole and his England front-row colleagues were well aware of other dimension to Dawe’s game. “Cockers tells me a story that they ran out at Welford Road one time and I think Dawe was stretching and Cockers with his studs on ran over his fingers. Dawe just looked up and smiled at him.”
Another area England are looking to improve is giving away silly penalties of which there seem to be way too many. Jones, unlike some coaches, has no set number of penalties which he considers too high and often comments that the most successful teams tend to have a high penalty count. But the Australian is waging war on needless penalties at silly times.
When you are in control and pressing for a try the last thing you need to do is infringe; when the game is in a quiet phase and going nowhere and you randomly concede a penalty within kicking distance; when your well organised defence is comfortably resisting an opposition onslaught and you lose concentration and patience for a second.
“It’s down to player responsibility, we are not coached to give away penalties,” says Cole who owns up to his fair share of such offences. “It comes down to technique. It’s like me at the weekend in Rome. I gave away one ‘silly’ penalty for a clear out when I’m clearly off my feet.
“I personally have got to work at being better at clearing breakdowns. I hit it at the wrong angle, too low, and ran into an Italian brick wall. I knew immediately there was a pretty good chance I would get pinged. At some breakdowns you sometimes end up in the wrong spot and don’t get pinged but that was pretty clear cut.
“It annoys you because we all understand it will have a knock-on effect in the game. There are times when you throw yourself in and you wish you hadn’t done it. We are working on techniques this week. It’s picked up by the coaching staff, they go through it and tell you where you can do better.”
As for the Irish on Saturday Cole, still only 28, is a veteran of too many bloody battles with the men in green – seven so far, four wins and three losses – to draw any conclusions from their results in the opening two games of the tournament.
And let’s face it although you can point out Ireland are seeking their first win of the this year’s tournament you could also point out that but for the want of three points they could be two from two and chasing a Grand Slam as they defend their title. They are still very much ballpark.
“Every time you play Ireland they are a smart team. They work your weaknesses, try to attack you and get the ball there. They will come prepared for a physical battle but they will also arrive with something else to make us think.
“There are a lot of new players in the Irish pack. You take out Paul O’Connell who is a legend of the game and potentially it’s not going to be as strong, but at the same time Ireland are in transition phase, they are growing and they still have some very good players with a lot of caps like Rory Best. They are still a good enough team to compete with anyone.”
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