It was at this time of year in 2009 that Dan Cole of Leicester, nothing more than a faint rumour as far as the general rugby public was concerned, first announced himself as a big, solid fact of union life by scrummaging one French international prop, Lionel Faure, clean off the pitch in an important Heineken Cup game at Welford Road and giving a second, Thomas Domingo, all the close-quarter grief he could handle. Two months later, he was in the England front row.
And there he stayed until this February, when, during a bog-standard weights session at the red-rose base in Surrey, he suddenly found himself unable to bench-press anything heavier than thin air and was promptly diagnosed as suffering from a neck condition serious enough to put his career under threat. On Sunday he will attempt to recover some of the lost ground by taking another Frenchman or two to the cleaners in a European match every bit as central to his club’s well-being as the one five years ago.
There is a good deal riding on his performance against the reigning champions Toulon, who are every bit as formidably equipped at the sharp end of the pack as Clermont Auvergne were back in ’09. The Six Nations is just around the corner, followed by some other tournament – that’s right, a home World Cup – a little further down the road, and since Cole last made his voice heard in affairs of rugby state, other props of the tight-head variety have piped up to considerable effect.
Cole’s understudy at the last World Cup, the Bath forward David Wilson, has, by common consent, made the most of his recent first-choice status. He may not be as mobile as the Leicester man and cannot begin to match him in the turnover department, but when an England pack performs as well as this one, it is safe to assume that the man in the No 3 shirt is doing plenty right.
And then there is the newcomer, Kieran Brookes, whose cameos off the bench have been eye-catching. It may be that no prop in the country carries the ball as dynamically as the 20-stoner from Stoke, who spent time with Cole at Leicester before joining Newcastle.
“In terms of pure set piece – scrum, line-out, maul – there aren’t many better packs than England’s right now,” Cole acknowledged as he assessed the scale of the challenge ahead of him. “The French and the Argentines are also up there, but when you achieve the kind of forward dominance against the big southern hemisphere teams we saw during the autumn series, it can take you a long way. England didn’t win all their games and we know how smart the All Blacks and the Wallabies are when it comes to adapting, but as we’ve found at Leicester over a number of years, a dominant pack gets you a lot of results.
“So when you look at the England pack as it is currently constituted, it’s going to be hard for anyone to get back in, be they Lions Test players – Geoff Parling, Tom Youngs – or whoever. But the way I see it, if you can force your way back against tough competition, you’ll be the better for it. When I was coming through the ranks at Leicester, I had Julian White and Martin Castrogiovanni ahead of me. If you get to the top of that kind of tree, it means something.
“As far as the England thing is concerned, I have to start playing to a standard where I make myself selectable. From there, it’s the competition in the squad that drives people on. It’s nothing to be scared of. You have to relish the test and enjoy it.”
So what happened during that gym session 10 months ago? To the naked eye, Cole had seemed perfectly at one with the world in the early games of the Six Nations – a narrow defeat in France, a commanding wet-weather victory in Scotland – and was set fair for the big game with Ireland at Twickenham. By suddenly going kaput, he threw the entire England operation into a tailspin.
“I’d been suffering from a stiff neck since playing a European game against Ulster in January,” he recalled. “So when, in the third week of the Six Nations, I tried to go through that weights routine and found I had no power in my left arm, it flagged up the possibility that the problem was something neural. I was sent off for a scan and that revealed a bulging disc in my neck, which was affecting the nerve route in my arm.
“Neck surgery is not something you really want to undergo if you can help it, so I was happy to accept the specialist’s advice when he recommended three months of rest to let the bulge settle. It didn’t settle, unfortunately, so they operated in May.
“Was I worried? It wasn’t ideal. When you understand the forces that go through your neck, you don’t really want to mess around with it. But the surgeon had operated on most of the Leicester team – he did Tom Youngs’ back, Tom Croft’s neck, Miles Benjamin’s neck, Geoff Parling’s neck – and with them all playing again, I knew I’d be all right.
“It was meant to be a six-month recovery, but I’m ahead of that and I’ve never felt better. It’s been frustrating, though: just sitting on my arse on the sofa doing pretty much zero – I wasn’t meant to ‘activate’ my neck at all – when all I wanted was to be a part of what was going on at Leicester... it was tough to take. A bit of video analysis and a free lunch is not really enough to get you up in the morning.
“Some people suggested I should go travelling, but you can’t just sod off for three months, can you? I thought it was my job to stay involved as much as possible and help out where needed. I’m not much of a beach person, anyway.”
Cole may be a month or so ahead of schedule, but this is not to suggest that his rehabilitation has been anything other than painstaking. The long weeks of nothing much were followed by equally long weeks of non-contact strength recovery work – the rugby equivalent of army square-bashing. Then came the anxious wait for a first competitive outing, together with a first competitive scrum.
“Before our game against Sale last month there was some nervousness – not about the state of my neck, but about being crap after 10 months out of the game,” he said. “When you’re away for that amount of time, you don’t really have a clue what’s going to happen. Thankfully, I was thrown straight into a scrum and after that, I was back on auto-pilot. Since then, playing 65 minutes and then 80 minutes, it’s been a matter of building up my match fitness and awareness. You can do as much training as you like, but you still have to know what to chase and what not to chase.”
If Toulon’s stellar imports click on Sunday, Cole could find himself chasing shadows. “You come across all-international packs in European rugby, but it’s not often you run into a complete squad with Test players from No 1 to No 23,” he said. “It could be as hard as a Test match, and knowing the way the French play, a forward-dominated Test match at that. Still, it’s good to be back, even if I feel I’m in the middle of pre-season while everyone else is halfway through the serious stuff.”Reuse content