Back in the long-lost, halcyon days of West Country rugby, when the state comprehensive schools in one small city were producing players of the calibre of Jeremy Guscott and John Hall and all roads led directly to the ornamental iron gates of the Recreation Ground, the revered coach Jack Rowell was frequently heard to tell one of his charges: "That may be good enough for England, but it's not good enough for Bath." Dan Cole, very much a man of the present, must hear a Midlands version of that message every time he takes the training field at Leicester. The best tight-head prop in the country is merely the second-best tight-head prop at his club. Strange, but true.
"There's a pecking order at the club and the way I see it, I'm not the number one," he said yesterday, his eyes narrowing in the time-honoured fashion of a front-rower with a point to prove. "Castro is the number one." By Castro, he meant Martin Castrogiovanni, the folk-hero prop from Argentina who declared for Italy back in 2002 and has become one of the more effective, as well as one of the most recognisable, individuals in the international game. And as luck would have it, the two men will meet, in full warpaint, at Twickenham this weekend in the second round of Six Nations fixtures.
In many respects, the 23-year-old Englishman is every bit as accomplished as his elder and supposed better. There are, however, certain differences – and they are not confined to strict technical matters, even though Cole openly admits that Castrogiovanni is the better ball-carrier. Cole does not go for the "wild man of Borneo" look – "As my hair is falling out, I'm limited in what I can do in that area" – and goes about his work in a quiet, no-nonsense kind of way that is wholly at odds with the Italian's "performance art" approach. Also, he came to the sport through the traditional channels of school and age-group rugby. Castrogiovanni did not. Channelled into basketball by his mother, who thought union too rough, he slam-dunked his coach as a means of ensuring he would never shoot hoops again.
"Actually, we get on well," Cole continued. "Castro's a nice guy. He runs an Italian restaurant in Leicester and gives me free coffee. Of course, I think I should get free food as well, but if I was the one running the restaurant, I wouldn't be feeding rugby players for free." Might there be some high jinks in London after Saturday's game? "Last season in Rome, three of us ended up on the Italian bus, thanks to Castro. He's already talking about another night out. I'll just go with the flow."
All very cosy, then. But now Castrogiovanni has extended his Leicester contract by 18 months or so, does this not beg an obvious question? "You either accept it or you don't," Cole replied with a shrug. "On the one hand, you have to be playing well to be picked for your country, and form comes from having a run of games. On the other hand, the present situation seems to be working for me. Primarily, I want what's best for Leicester. What I don't want is to be handed things on a plate. To be first choice, I have to be better than Castro. That means grafting, and it means improving certain areas of my game so I can have as many involvements around the field as him. But I won't compromise the things that have brought me to international rugby. I'm not going to walk backwards in a scrum just so I can carry the ball three phases down the line."
Cole takes his basic duties extremely seriously. "At Leicester, you're taught to push, lift, ruck, maul and make tackles. There's a lot of pride attached to that. The 'hands on the ball' thing is supplementary as far as I'm concerned, because there are people playing elsewhere in the pack who carry the ball much better than I do." This will, of course, come as music to the ears of one Martin Johnson, the current England manager and the former Leicester hardhead who, during his playing days, would have taken a very dim view of prop forwards tripping the light fantastic.
Not that Castrogiovanni is anyone's idea of a show pony. How could he be, having learned his rugby in the hardest of hard-knock schools? Born in Parana, north of Buenos Aires, he rose through the ranks at the Atletico Estudiantes club before heading to Europe to try his luck professionally. After a spell in Italy with Calvisano – "My grandfather came from Sicily, near Mount Etna: you know, real mafia country," he once said – he moved to Welford Road, where the full-contact Tuesday training sessions are renowned for their bloodletting and the scrum work-outs are just as perilous to life and limb. As Cole put it: "When you've hit 40 scrums, all you want to do is continue living, not continue fighting."
Along with the loose-head specialist Salvatore Perugini and the hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, who also captains the side, Castrogiovanni forms one of the outstanding front-row units in modern-day rugby – "right up there in the top two or three," according to Cole, who added: "These people know what they're doing, and while the Italians have evolved their game to a degree over the last couple of seasons, they still base it around the set-piece.
"They have developed their own style, rooted in the Argentine scrummaging tradition. When you look at the French, they go for the initial hit and then keep driving. The Italians do things differently. Against Ireland at the weekend, they were looking to hold for a long time – they don't mind a slow scrum – and go for the second shunt when they felt the opposition had relaxed a little. They're good enough to do that, and it makes them dangerous. While things went reasonably well for us against Wales last week, the perception is that Italy's scrum is better than the Welsh one. I think that perception is right. I put them alongside the French as a scrummaging side."
Are we, therefore, talking about a close-quarter scrap amongst the forwards, rather than an all-singing, all-dancing variety performance from the England backs? "I won't mind if we win by a point," Cole responded. "In the end, we have to win. Even if we scored a thousand points in this championship, one defeat would stuff us up. If we win every championship game by a point, we win the title."Reuse content