It was not just the four tries with which Sale smashed Harlequins last Sunday. It was not just the smiles on the faces which reminded us that, yes, there is still a game to be played free from iron defence and catatonic kicking. As Ben Cohen puts it: "People really let their hair down, it was enjoyable and that's the sort of rugby I want to play". It was the appearance of Cohen himself, finishing it all off with his trademark arm-raised, arch-backed swallow dive, which gave it an otherworldliness. This was the wing that time forgot.
Back at the inception of the noughties, Cohen was the man: a handsome, free-scoring icon for English professional rugby in its birth-pang era. Not flashily endowed with skill but making the most of what he'd got as his club, Northampton, won the Heineken Cup in 2000 and he made his England debut the same year. In Cohen's first 37 Tests for his country he ran, dodged and barged – but mostly ran – to 26 tries and was on the beaten side just three times. It bears repeating: England won 34 of his first 37 matches, until the defeat by Ireland at Twickenham in 2004 which signalled the Ice Age for the winners of the 2003 World Cup.
"Those days were magnificent, unforgettable," says Cohen at his home near Northampton, and nimbly juggling both the phone and the conversation while his two-year-old twin daughters Harriet and Isabelle argue he'd be better off playing with the horses outside. "I was in the right place at the right time and very fortunate to be involved. In 2000, 2001, 2002 there was a wealth of knowledge in that England side. Richard Hill was an unsung hero and Will Greenwood was massive in the backs. Will made Jonny Wilkinson's job a lot easier. When people say Jonny isn't attacking the line so much now, they should know that England are missing a Will Greenwood. The finger gets pointed at the coaches, and ultimately if you're the boss of anything and it's not performing you have to take the blame.
"They've tried the pod system for about 18 months and it isn't working the way they want it to. Sometimes that comes down to personnel. Nick Easter and Riki Flutey were injured in the autumn and they were massive in that system. I don't think England are really far away. Come the Six Nations they'll step on."
Having got the verdict over two current wing contenders Ugo Monye and Dave Strettle last weekend, the 31-year-old Cohen has no need to dwell on the past; indeed in some respects he positively discourages it. There was the loss of his father after a nightclub fight in 2000, and then there were Cohen's own career choices. "I've said I was irresponsible to go to Brive [for two years until he joined Sale last summer] with a young family. And I've said that the reason I left Northampton [in 2007] was nothing to do with the club captaincy, and I do feel I've got the moral high ground on that. But I don't want to keep talking about these things. I'm at Sale and enjoying myself and I'll look a twat if I keep on talking about Northampton and Brive."
Instead we turn to a subject mentioned on his personal website and Cohen reveals a side of him rarely exposed to public gaze. "I'm clinically deaf," he says. "It's hereditary and I have hearing aids but I never wear them. That's why people sometimes think I'm rude. They say something and I just haven't heard it." How has that affected his rugby? "The referees have a laugh about it when I can't hear them. I've been quite instinctive as a player, never been really skilful, just had a nose for the line and played a bit of rugby. It's been OK but there are funny moments. I was in the backs' meeting before the World Cup final – yes, on the day of the game – and sitting there, head down, studying the notes. Everyone had got up and left the room and I had no idea. Clive [Woodward] had to come over and tell me."
If Sale can defeat Quins again today – and the London side may be ambivalent at best after three Heineken Cup defeats – quarter-final qualification from a tough pool including Cardiff Blues and Toulouse is still on.
Cohen says Sale's head coach, Jason Robinson, concentrates on the back three while Byron Hayward looks after the inside backs and Charlie Hodgson's on-field expertise brings it all together. "We took a very young side to Toulouse," says Cohen of the opening pool match in October when he scored his first try for Sale, "and though we lost, the players did fantastically well, it showed the strength in depth. We've got forwards like Carl Fearns and James Gaskell coming through and Dwayne Peel, Richard Wigglesworth, Mark Cueto, Mathew Tait in the backs. Plus Charlie at fly-half – now there's an international player, he's world class and without doubt the form No 10 in England."
Cohen's 57th and last cap came in 2006; his 31 tries for England remain second only to Rory Underwood. So what might the New Year bring for Big Ben? "I'm playing well again now which is good but I can't talk myself back for England, I've got to score tries. And that's hard to do these days."Reuse content