Dan Cole: ‘Not being picked for England doesn’t define you’

Is Dan Cole the future of English rugby? The 35-year-old prop laughs at the question, but Old King Cole’s second coming is a real possibility. After being overlooked for three years, the prospects for the tight header have improved dramatically since the Leicester trio of Steve Borthwick, Kevin Sinfield and Richard Cockerill took over the national team. “So if I’m not chosen now…” he laughs, with self-deprecation as ironic as ever.

It would be a comeback considering what happened the last time he represented England. The The South African “bomb squad” made of the minced meat of the red rose melee in the World Cup final in Japan in 2019 and Eddie Jones no longer selected Crouching Tiger. But top-flight English tight headers remain relatively rare and Bath’s Will Stuart is injured, giving Cole one last chance to try and sneak past.

With Cole not involved in Leicester’s European Cup match under the Clermont lights on Friday night, there shouldn’t be a late injury to ruin his chances of being named in the Six’s first team either. Nations of England from Borthwick on Monday. The former attended a preliminary fitness testing session last week and renewed some laconic acquaintances. “No one is ever happy to see me, but I didn’t totally feel like the old man.”

More seriously, though, Cole thinks there are two good reasons why he still has something to contribute. The first is that age obviously hasn’t bothered three of his Tigers colleagues – Richard Wigglesworth just packed up at 39, Jimmy Gopperth is the same age and Ben Youngs is 33 – with recovery techniques improved helping to prolong careers. “People are getting better care when it comes to injuries so they can play longer,” says Cole. “Even if you are slightly degrading physically, you can be great communicators. Was it Teddy Sheringham who said the first two yards were in his head? Not so much for me, but for others.

The other important factor is how the game evolves. “Look how important the scrum is,” he says. “If you win a penalty from the scrum, you shoot into midfield. Win a penalty from the maul and you hit in the 22. Then you maul and hammer the line. Much of the game takes place in these areas of the pitch. Three or four years ago, every scrum was a penalty. The game has moved away from that.

Dan Cole is dragged into the fray by South African Tendai Mtawarira in the 2019 World Cup final
Dan Cole is dragged into the fray by South African Tendai Mtawarira in the 2019 World Cup final, in which England were more muscular. Photo: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Cole is the first to admit that playing alongside powerful teammates like Julián Montoya and Jasper Wiese makes life so much easier. Without this pair carrying force on the win line, Leicester have struggled lately. The beauty of Cole, however, lies in his vast background in sets. If chosen, he believes he can contribute to Borthwick’s mission to stabilize and strengthen the foundations of England. “Knowing Steve, nothing is done on a whim and he will have a plan. He will find a way to field the team to win rugby matches.

The veteran rower, who has won 95 England caps plus three for the British and Irish Lions, admits his 2019 experience has been slow to recover. “Something like the World Cup final happens and you instantly think, ‘Good, get back on the horse and fix it.’ You want to continue the good times but it didn’t happen. You’re the only change in the team. Brilliant. But you accept it. I’m comfortable with that.

It wouldn’t be the end of his world if he was missing again. “Not being chosen or being chosen does not define you. I will still have children to take care of at home and I will still have teammates here. I still have a life here. It’s not for me to cry.

With another Six Nations perhaps on the horizon, however, he distinctly sounds like a man with more to him. “You always want to play for England. I’m sure when I’m 70 I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I want to play for England.’

If that happens, he hopes it will give his six-year-old twins a better understanding of their day job. “I remember going to work with my father, who was a civil engineer, when I was five or six years old and realizing that you work and that’s why you have what you have. With kids growing up, you want them to appreciate that.

“They see you playing rugby in front of 20,000 people and they’re like, ‘That’s great.’ They don’t realize you’re doubled over [at training] on a Tuesday morning and you can’t walk on a Wednesday morning. It’s good for me to show them that dad is a rugby player, but you have to work hard for that.

If Cole takes advantage of a test reminder, it couldn’t happen to a better rugby player.

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