Dan Cole: Battering-ram eager to 'pulverise' Australia's scrum
Leicester tight-head will be crucial if Australia's front row weakness is to be exploited on Saturday
When England's most important player – the one individual who can reasonably be described as a hot favourite for a Lions Test spot in Wallaby country next summer – starts waxing lyrical on the delicate subject of pulverisation, you know the Australians are already in his thoughts. Dan Cole, the tight-head prop from Leicester, is the man charged with making the tourists squeal in the scrum at Twickenham on Saturday, as many a predecessor has done before him. To the rugby public at large, it is in the natural order of things.
"Will we pulverise them? We'll attempt to do so," he said, reassuringly for red rose followers who understand the importance of this game, not only for the national team's ongoing development but also in terms of the race for a top-four ranking place ahead of next month's pool draw for the home World Cup in 2015. "You're always looking for forward dominance, especially at the set-piece. The Australians have already said that they'll be looking to dominate, so bring it on."
By southern hemisphere standards, the Wallabies are a pushover: England have won 16 of the 40 Tests between the two nations, compared with 12 of 35 against the Springboks and a miserable half-dozen in 34 meetings with the All Blacks. The word "pushover" is unusually appropriate, for by and large, red rose victories over the green and gold are achieved through the successful application of muscle and sinew in the darkened recesses rather than any free-flowing brilliance in the wide open acres. If England get it right up front, they are generally in with a shout, If they get it wrong, they have no chance.
Cole knows this to be true. "It's probably a cultural thing," he said. "The way we play the game in England, the set-piece is a dominant factor. If you look at rugby in the southern hemisphere, it is less so. Their attitude is 'get it in, get it out, play'. About 10 years ago, the Australians were really suffering in the scrum. Then they focused on it and started performing well in that department, but they've been struggling with injuries recently and there's been a lot of chopping and changing, which never helps when you're trying to operate as a unit.
"I've watched the tape of their game in Paris last weekend and while their scrummaging was rough at times, there were other occasions when they were switched on enough to cause the French some problems. That's why we have to be wary this weekend. What's happened before in England-Australia matches might be a disadvantage to us, because they'll come out firing in the set-piece at Twickenham in an effort to show they mean business – to put doubts in our minds, and in the minds of the crowd. We have to be respectful of that and not go out there thinking we'll smash them, because if we come a cropper in the first scrum it will knock the wind out of us. It's a question of doing whatever we have to do to deal with them."
It may well be that Cole's is the first name on the England teamsheet these days. Back in the dim and distant past, the loose-head prop was considered the kingpin position in the pack, largely because the hooker was wholly dependant on the man to his left holding the scrum sufficiently high to provide a view of the ball. But the traditional hooking skills have largely disappeared: in today's rugby, the "hit" and the accompanying "nudge" are the crucial factors, along with the half-back's timing of the feed.
As a consequence, the man on the right of the front row – the tight head – is the key figure in absorbing the huge physical forces generated by the engagement and using them to his advantage. The 25-year-old Midlander is in prime form, but he is right to be a little suspicious of the Wallaby scrummagers. Four years ago at Twickenham, a strong England front-row unit was unstitched by the Australian prop Al Baxter, who had been dismissed as a powder-puff scrummager for much of his Test career. A year later, Benn Robinson and Ben Alexander lorded it over their opponents as the Australians recorded another victory on London soil.
In addition, the Wallabies are not above a touch of sharp practice when it comes to survival at the sharp end. Under Eddie Jones, the coach who guided them to the World Cup final in 2003, they were the masters of scrummaging slipperiness: the rolling hit, the soft hit, the three-quarter hit…these tricks were pulled out of the hat like conjurors' rabbits. Now, they have taken to withdrawing a prop early in the game, allowing him to rest for half an hour and then reintroducing him, fresh as a daisy, for the last knockings.
Yet when all is said and done, the set-piece set-to in this weekend's game should be the least of England's problems. Cole is in the best shape of his career, his confidence high after winning the fight with the Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni for a place in Leicester's starting line-up.
His challenge to himself is to produce some added extras in the loose, and he might start by learning to recognise an overlap when it is staring him in the face. "Yeah, thanks," he said, embarrassed by the reference to an incident in last weekend's victory over Fiji, when, instead of passing, he went for the line himself and failed to ground the ball. "You know at the time that you've made a mistake," he said. "It was brought up when we reviewed the game and while I wasn't roundly condemned, I wasn't told I'd made a good decision either. I'll score next time."
Rob Simmons, the Wallaby lock, will miss this weekend's game with England after picking up a two-month suspension for dangerous tackling during Australia's heavy defeat by France last Saturday. Simmons was cited for a "tip-tackle" on the flanker Yannick Nyanga.
Cole in numbers
32 Caps won by Cole - third highest in the current squad.
2010 Cole made his international debut in a 30-17 victory over Wales at Twickenham.
2 Number of wins for Cole in his three matches v Australia.
7 Stitches he needed for an eye injury against Australia in 2010.
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