Ben Cohen: Falling in love all over again

He battled back from burn-out to rekindle his passion for rugby. Now Ben Cohen's ready to take on Australia
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As rugby union's administrators ponder how to balance the ever-increasing demands on the leading players, they should consider the example of one Ben Christopher Cohen. By the end of last season the England wing had already done more than enough to earn himself a place among the game's legends. A World Cup winner, Cohen had a remarkable strike rate of 29 Test tries - only Rory Underwood, Will Greenwood and Jeremy Guscott have scored more for England - in 46 international appearances.

Yet at the age of just 26, he was sick of rugby. "I was being paid for a job that I hated doing," Cohen said. "When you stop enjoying your rugby you start to let yourself go in certain respects. I let myself go a bit mentally and I was a bit overweight. I'd lost my edge. I was burnt out.

"I didn't think for a minute that I would get on the [British and Irish] Lions tour. After the Lions squad was announced I took myself off the standby list. I didn't want to go on the England tour either. I just didn't want anything to do with rugby. I wanted to take a whole step back. I just spent time at home.

"I didn't watch any rugby on television. I didn't watch the Lions matches. It would have been pointless taking a break from rugby if I'd done that. The only thing I did was go down the gym after I'd taken about six weeks off. I just trimmed the trees and sat on the mower. I had plenty to think about: I was digesting eight years of non-stop rugby."

The power of rest has been there for all to see in the opening months of the new season. Cohen, his passion for the game rekindled, has been back doing what he does best - scoring tries - and will complete what had seemed an unlikely comeback when he takes his place on the England wing against Australia on Saturday in the first of the autumn internationals.

Less than two months ago Cohen was not even in Andy Robinson's preliminary 30-man squad, but when the England coach picked his team for Twickenham, he was delighted to name the Northampton wing in his starting line-up for the first time since succeeding Clive Woodward last summer. Cohen made three England appearances from the bench last season, his last start having been the 51-15 thrashing handed out by Australia in Brisbane during the dying weeks of Woodward's regime in June 2004.

Looking back, Cohen regrets having not taken a rest from international duty that summer, as his England colleagues Greenwood, Jason Robinson and Ben Kay did. He knew by the end of the World Cup campaign the previous November that he needed to recharge his batteries.

"That's something I should have done," Cohen said as he reflected on his recall this week at England's training headquarters at Bagshot. "I should have taken time off. I talked to my wife about it leading up to that summer, but one thing led to another and by the time I knew it I was on the tour. Not long after that it was the start of a new season. That's how quickly it comes around."

Cohen's disillusionment was there for all to see last season. His performances reflected his mental state. He was not even an automatic first choice for Northampton, whose head coach, Alan Solomons, left in mid-season during a painful campaign which would have ended in relegation from the Premiership but for Harlequins' one-point defeat by Sale on the final day. Northampton, with Cohen playing at centre, lost at Worcester that afternoon in a game they had to win to keep survival in their own hands.

By the end of the season Cohen knew he had to take a break, even though he wondered about the long-term effect on his career. "Whatever happened this season was something that I knew I would have to deal with at the start of the campaign," he said. "Of course I wondered whether I would ever play for England again. I even wondered whether I would ever score any tries again."

Not that Cohen ever considered making himself unavailable for Test rugby. "I don't think you can rush into that sort of decision. That's the sort of decision you have to make when you're fresh and you're still loving the game. But that thought has never come into my head."

Three months of rest, combined with hard work in training under Budge Pountney's new coaching regime at Northampton, have done wonders for Cohen's game. The arrival of Carlos Spencer, the former All Black fly-half, has helped to reinvigorate the side, though Cohen also points to the form of men like Dave Quinlan, Jon Clarke, Sean Lamont and Bruce Reihana in an enterprising Saints back division.

Robinson had already had good reports of Cohen's form in training when six tries in four games, including a hat-trick against Viadana in the European Challenge Cup and a match-winning score against London Irish, confirmed his comeback.

"When things aren't going well you do wonder whether you're going to reach your previous highs again," Cohen said. "Last season just didn't go well for me. I think I scored three tries all season. When I came back this season I achieved that quota in one game.

"I've worked very hard this season. I've lost quite a bit of weight and this is the fittest I've been for a very long time, possibly the fittest ever. I'm just enjoying it. To get called up by England again came totally out of the blue, but hopefully this is just the start. Everyone's career has peaks and troughs.

"I'm loving my rugby now. Having the time off has relit the fire inside me. Things are going well at Northampton. Although we lost at the weekend, things are 100 per cent better than last season. They're even 100 per cent better than five weeks ago.

"Paul Grayson, Budge Pountney and Frank Ponissi are doing a really good job. I think Paul Grayson will eventually be involved in the England set-up. He's a fantastic coach and he's got us back to playing rugby and scoring tries."

Robinson sent a camera crew to monitor Cohen's progress and was impressed by the evidence they brought back. "Ben is one of the form wingers," the England coach said. "He's scoring lots of tries and his work-rate has been excellent. He's been getting around 26 touches in a game and is making good use of the ball. He's also playing with a smile on his face, which helps a lot.

"Under the coaching staff at Northampton he's got back to the levels he was at with England. With his pace and his try-scoring ability he has an important role to play on Saturday."

The omission of Mark van Gisbergen may have left England short of kicking options, but the selection of Cohen alongside Mark Cueto and Josh Lewsey gives Robinson a back three with a formidable try-scoring record.

"Ben has forced his way in and it's always important to have wingers who are scoring tries," Robinson said. "Mark Cueto is the same. Josh has been the form England player for the last year and I felt Cohen, Lewsey and Cueto were the best back three to start the game."

Cohen has been a prolific scorer at international level from the day he made his England debut five years ago, scoring two tries against Ireland. Moreover, with the notable exception of last summer in Brisbane - "I want to erase that memory from the archive," he said - he has a good record against Australia.

A brace of tries against the Wallabies in the autumn internationals three years ago, not to mention a try-saving tackle that ensured victory over the All Blacks, confirmed Cohen's arrival as a player of true world class. A memorable score against Australia in a 25-14 victory the following summer helped England complete their southern hemisphere tour unbeaten. A try against the old enemy this weekend would bring him level with Guscott's tally of 30 England scores.

Some critics have suggested that Cohen has not been tested by high-quality opposition this season and that Saturday's match will be a major step up, but he is unconcerned. "Of course, Australia have higher quality players in some areas than I've been facing this season, but I haven't thought much about the opposition," he said. "I've only thought about playing for England, full stop. That's the pinnacle in rugby for me."

Cohen is reluctant to be drawn into the dark world of rugby union politics, but his experience this summer is clearly a lesson for the game. "That's a different story and I don't want to go too much into that, but I think it's obvious that you need to have a good rest every year," he said. "It's pretty simple really: rest is something we just don't get enough of."

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