- Prop eager to get this Rugby World Cup “absolutely right”
- Cole takes lessons from 2011 in bid for better results
Dan Cole smiles wryly as he confronts the question that has been lingering on the subconscious of most fans for the past four years. The 28 year-old Leicester Tiger adopts an apologetic tone, knowing his answer will disappoint a few people.
“I’m not growing a beard this time, no,” he confirms. “I’m getting married at the start of August, so I’m not allowed.”
It is a crushing blow for the onlookers that so admired Cole’s magnificent facial fuzz at the last Rugby World Cup. The reasoning, though, is perfectly understandable – practical even. In five seasons of Test rugby encompassing 53 Tests for England and the Lions, Cole has seen just about everything. Superstition does not sway this tighthead.
That said, he certainly wants an entirely contrasting outcome from his second crack at the sport’s biggest prize. And to appreciate the pain of a set-back is to learn from it. Stuart Lancaster’s squad will be far stronger for the presence of those who were part of the 2011 failure.
Cole started all five matches in New Zealand as an ill-fated campaign culminated with a 19-12 quarter-final defeat against France. Those experiences – plus a naturally thoughtful demeanour – make him a perfect candidate to outline the subtle shifts in players’ perspectives.
“The main difference is probably just that you feel a bit more comfortable,” he explains. “You are aware of the pressures that come with leading up to a World Cup. You know what to expect from the training camp, for example, because you’ve been through it once already.
“Excitement is just the same, if not greater, because those of us that were there last time didn’t have the greatest experience. We expect this time round to be much better and you want it more because you’ve already been at one.
“This chance doesn’t come around very often and after underperforming at the last World Cup, we want to get this one totally right.”
Cole acknowledges the inevitable “added attention” that will come with the territory of hosting the tournament before passing it off as merely “something we will have to deal with”. The same grounded, matter-of-fact manner has been extremely useful over the past 18 months.
Last February during a training session with England, Cole felt numbness seep down his left arm. A hospital trip revealed a bulging disk in his neck that required nine months of rehabilitation. Not long after his return in an LV=Cup clash with Sale Sharks on 5 November, a foot injury threw his RBS 6 Nations involvement into doubt.
However, the immensely durable Cole came through to excel for club and country, reinforcing his standing among the best props on the planet. Even in Leicester’s Aviva Premiership play-off thrashing at the hands of Bath Rugby, he was destructive in the scrum and spiky around the field. While a 47-10 defeat at The Rec holds few happy memories, Cole can reflect on plenty of encouraging aspects.
“I’ve not watched the Bath game again. That’s still a bit sore. I was quite pleased with how things went on personal level at the end of the season.
“It was pleasing to play a full part in the Six Nations after coming back from the neck problem and then hurting my foot at the start of the year. This off-season is important, now. I want to be back where I left off.”
Quality saturates all of Graham Rowntree’s front-row options in spite of Dylan Hartley’s absence. Sure to share the trenches with Cole at some point is Tom Youngs, another tenacious Tiger. Having moved up through the ranks together – hitting the pinnacle by collaborating for the Lions in Australia two summers ago – the pair are close friends that form a potent set-piece partnership.
Given Cole’s fiancée Isobel is a cousin of Youngs and his younger brother Ben, they will be family of sorts quite soon as well. The situation causes Cole to grin again, but his assessment of Youngs’ value is far from sentimental.
“You just have to watch Tom during a game, and the work he gets through, to figure out what he brings to any team.
“He’s just non-stop. He carries, tackles, hits rucks – he does all of that very hard and he does it for 80 minutes, week-in, week-out.
“The energy he brings is excellent and it rubs off on people. When you see someone going about their business like he does, it makes you get off your feet as well. It’s definitely something that can help in this World Cup.”
To progress from Pool A and better their previous return, England cannot lapse. Cole was exceptional in the 21-16 victory over Wales five months back – a couple of crucial ruck pilfers punctuating perhaps the most dogged performance of Lancaster’s tenure. On an individual level, he was similarly effective in Dublin against Ireland four weeks later. A crunching carry through Cian Healy epitomised his industry. As a whole though, England were outplayed. A 19-9 reverse made for a far less satisfactory outcome.
Afterwards, Cole gave a frank admission. He said the team had simply not been ready for the Irish assault at the breakdown. With the Wallabies and dangerous underdogs Fiji lurking alongside Warren Gatland’s men in perhaps the deadliest group stage in World Cup history, room for error and underestimation is non-existent.
“You go into a Test match knowing that there are certain aspects of the game you have to turn up in. The set-piece and the breakdown are two fundamental ones. You’ve got to be at your best there. Against Ireland, we weren’t.
“All we can ever do is to focus on ourselves and prepare well, because against any top 10 side in the world you can easily get found out. Hopefully that game gave us the slap we needed to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Fittingly, we finish on the notion of rectifying a mishap. Cole can drive England in this regard. No more slip-ups will be tolerated.