‘do we really need a ball?’

AHEAD OF THE WORLD CUP, LEICESTER TIGERS AND ENGLAND’S DAN COLE TALKS PROPPING, PORRIDGE, AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY, HIS LAUNDRY BOY AT THE ENGLAND TEAM HOTEL AND WHY HOOKER, TOM YOUNGS, FEELS LIKE PART OF THE FAMILY.

Tight-head prop – let’s not mince our words here – is not a position for the well-adjusted. Referees pick on you, journalists ignore you, small children in supermarkets point at your ears and you bleed a lot; in short, it is an uncompromising and unglamorous line of work, exactly why Dan Cole finds it so appealing.

‘Would I rather have been a wing?’ he says, as though the question is an affront to his very existence, which, on reflection, I suppose it is. ‘Don’t be silly. What for? We have far too much fun in the front row. At Leicester we’ve our own coffee club and we sit together at lunch. Why would I exchange all that for fame, fortune and good looks?’

There is something wonderfully masonic about life at rugby’s chalk-face. Once upon a time the aforementioned Leicester Coffee Club – on the back of a couple of espressos too many perhaps – seriously considered petitioning the IRB to scrap the entire law book and turn the game into one eighty-minute scrum. Indeed the unsent email is still kicking around somewhere in the murkier corners of the Welford Road dressing room.

‘The ball, for example,’ says Cole, warming to his theme. ‘Is it really that essential? I go through plenty of games where I don’t even see it let alone touch it. Do we really need one? I mean, sod the backs.’

Dan Cole is the kind of character who gives the front row its unique flavor and – given he’s stronger than an acre of onions – a little bit more besides. Indeed this World Cup, he is the sheet anchor of England’s scrum and – perhaps less famously – an increasingly influential presence on the white side of the ruck.

‘A few years ago a lot of us in the front five tried to get to every breakdown whereas now it is about making an impact. It‘s better to be effective at one and miss two than just be crap at three. The scrum? I’m sure it’ll be a vital part of this World Cup but then again the likes of Michael Cheika know northern hemisphere rugby well and understand the importance of the set-piece so we can’t go into games thinking we can just batter a team up front. We’ve got to be strong in all areas.’

Cole – like many in his singular profession – insists that he became a prop by accident. ‘I spent too long hanging around dour, old men and ended up becoming one,’ he says, although he cheerfully accepts that if propping looks painful, that’s because it is. ‘If the game’s on Saturday, then Sunday, surprisingly, isn’t too bad but Monday you’re stiff everywhere – neck, shoulders, lower back. I reckon you’re starting to come round by Thursday but you’ve just got to manage yourself well. You’re never 100% going into a game so it’s a question of staying as fresh as you can.’

And that means mentally fresh as much as physically – not easy when it’s ‘your’ World Cup and all England Expects – which is why, in the padded cell that he shares with Chris Robshaw at England’s five-star training-camp in stockbroker Surrey, Dan Cole tries to keep the mood light.

‘Living with the skipper?’ he says, choosing his words carefully. ‘Well, it’s a lot better than sharing with Toby Flood. I roomed with him for ages and there were cosmetics everywhere. Chris is actually very thoughtful, so whenever he goes to fetch his washing he brings mine too. Basically, though, I’m just sleeping my way to the top.’

He did squeeze a couple of days away from the tackle bags and flip charts last month for a wedding in Darkest Norfolk – his own as it happens – where he married Isobel in the splendidly English setting of Melton Constable, thereby becoming distantly related to Tom Youngs, given the bride is his cousin. (Indeed if you want to take this one, tenuous step further, Isobel is a florist and Joe Marler’s partner is a Daisy – albeit with a capital ‘D’ – so it’s not just scrummaging that unites the England front row.)

‘The honeymoon was only twenty-fours, unfortunately,’ says the blushing bridegroom, ‘and we spent most of that tidying up after the reception. We’ll get away at some stage but I’m not sure when: World Cup, Europe, Christmas and New Year in the Premiership, Europe again, Six Nations, club knockout games and a tour to Australia with England.’ He pauses and scratches his head. ‘I think they’re trying to make men of us.’

In a position that lends itself perfectly to life’s eccentrics, Cole exemplifies what the best props are made of. This is a man who eats porridge ahead of home games and spaghetti Bolognese before away games – don’t ask – and, for light reading, devours the works of philosopher, linguist and cognitive scientist, Noam Chomsky, who once wrote that ‘the intellectual tradition is one of servility to power’. You wonder how often that sentence has been dunked into a skinny latte at the Leicester Coffee Club.

‘I just find him interesting,’ says Cole. ‘He gives you the other side of the story on things like American foreign policy.’ He pauses for a second. ‘This is getting a bit deep, isn’t it? Shall we talk about Toby Flood’s moisturisers instead? No, okay, well, let’s just say Noam’s not very complimentary about the Bush family.’

Rest assured, Stuart Lancaster will be all too complimentary about the value of Dan Cole in the coming weeks; off the pitch he is the breath of fresh air that England will need in the claustrophobia of a home World Cup and on the pitch, none of the likely starting fifteen against Fiji will have more caps in his locker – fifty-two and counting – than the Leicester Tigers’ tight-head. Indeed only six others – Youngs, Lawes, Wigglesworth, Haskell, Wilson and Wood – know what it’s like to be a part of a World Cup, albeit the chaotic one of four years ago, and the urge to put that right burns deeply. ’Everyone else’s memory of New Zealand is the bad stuff,‘ says Cole. ‘It would be nice to end this one with a more positive legacy.’

9th SEPTEMBER 2015

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