Graham Rowntree is understandably reluctant to talk himself out of his nice little earner as assistant coach to the England rugby team with special responsibility for the dark arts – a position commonly referred to as "scrum doctor" – so he vehemently disagrees with the proposition that Dan Cole, one of the discoveries of the age, arrived in the team fully formed.
"Dan could be a world-class prop, no doubt about it," says Rowntree, a cauliflower-faced front-rower of the old school who won 54 caps for his country. "But is he the finished article? Hell no. He still has work to do. Lots of work."
Nevertheless, it has been difficult to escape the impression these last few months that the Leicester forward had all his ducks in a row, all his bits and pieces in place, the moment he materialised in the red-rose set-up. Only once in his brief career at the business end of the sport has he had a serious issue – against Thomas Domingo, an awkward little endomorph of a French loose-head prop, in Paris back in March – and even then, it was not entirely obvious that the referee knew what the hell was going on at the set piece, where myth and mystery combine to befuddle even the sharpest of officials. The rest of it has been plain sailing, or at least, as plain as sailing can be in waters as tumultuous as those navigated by Cole and his kind.
Today, against a Wallaby unit that appears to scrummage in the way Ann Widdecombe dances – embarrassingly badly, bereft of dignity and wholly without hope of salvation – the 23-year-old Midlander faces a new and perilous kind of challenge. Together with Andrew Sheridan, whose international career began six months before Cole was old enough to buy himself a pint, he is confidently expected to reduce the Australian scrum to its component parts. As the senior partner has no doubt mentioned more than once over the last few days, expectation is a dangerous thing.
Two years ago almost to the hour, Sheridan saw a career constructed in no small part on a brutal domination of Australian front-rowers lose some of its lustre. Al Baxter, a veritable laughing stock of a Wallaby prop, turned the tables on the English scrum to such an extent that the tourists took two strikes against the head in front of 80,000 disbelieving supporters at Twickenham. Those who had anticipated Baxter being propelled skywards and making his return journey to Sydney without the aid of an aeroplane were wrong. Instead, he flew back business class, sipping champagne and chuckling all the way.
In his brief experience of operating against these particular opponents, Cole has not encountered so much as a hint of a problem. His first meeting with them in Perth last June was comically one-sided and if his second, in Sydney a week later, was just a little more competitive, it was still a cakewalk by the exacting standards of Test rugby. Most props, conscious of the possibility that what happened to Sheridan in 2008 might happen to anyone, would get their excuses in early, just in case. Not Cole. He expects to win the scrum contest this afternoon, just as he won them during the summer, and will be bitterly disappointed if it goes wrong.
"I don't see why we shouldn't look back at what happened on tour: I don't think there's a danger in taking the positives from an area in which we were extremely successful," he says. "But there's a flip side, because the scrum isn't the only part of the game, much as we props would like it to be. It wouldn't be good for us to get sucked into thinking that winning the set-piece battle automatically means we win the game as well. We couldn't have been much more dominant up front than we were in Perth, yet we lost the Test. The Wallabies showed us that there is more than one way to win a rugby match.
"We all know the Wallaby scrum struggled in Wales last week and yes, there's a perceived weakness there. We'll be after them at the set piece, obviously. I just hope the scrums are a proper contest, with two packs wanting to have a go at each other. But you won't catch us believing any of the hype that's flying around. That way, you come a cropper. Anything you get in rugby, you have to earn."
To Rowntree's educated eye, Cole is reminiscent of the young Phil Vickery, who broke into the England side in 1998 and achieved a thing or two over the ensuing decade: a World Cup victory and a Grand Slam in 2003, a second global final four years later and five Test starts for the British and Irish Lions. You can see the coach's point. Cole is both tall – an inch taller than Vickery at 6ft 3in – and a hefty specimen, weighing in at 18st 8lb. (His predecessor was a similar weight, and moved with the same agricultural gait.) "He has a very good temperament, just like Phil, and he wants to learn," Rowntree remarks. "I don't want to bull him up too much, but he might be just a little better-looking."
He might turn out to be a better scrummager, too – or at least, a scrummager better suited to the demands of the modern game. In pure set-piece terms, Vickery was at his most effective in the age of the "cavalry charge" hit, when forward packs smashed into each other from distance. These days, the referee runs through a process bordering on the interminable, bringing the rival props to within touching distance and holding them on a long pause before full contact is made. They could exchange phone numbers and go on a first date in the time it takes to engage, and sports science being what it is, the players rehearse every individual stage of what Rowntree calls the "cadence".
"Ah yes, the cadence," says Cole, who seems far more comfortable with the intricacies of this current triumph of long-windedness than the Cornish yeoman Vickery did in the later stages of his career. "Actually, I don't think it's too bad a system. It certainly makes it more difficult for inferior packs to mess around as they once did – all that 'threequarter crouch' and 'rolling hit' stuff. The referee is much more in control now, or ought to be, and that should ensure that the dominant scrum is rewarded, which is what we want to see."
There speaks a true man of Leicester, where the nuts-and-bolts discipline of set-piece work will never be sacrificed on the altar of "sexy rugby". It is the way Cole likes it. "At the Tigers, they preach a simple sermon," he says. "If you're a tight-head prop, your first responsibility is scrummaging, your second is line-out lifting and your third is your defence. Anything else is a bonus." Then, after due reflection, he acknowledges the importance of this "bonus" at Test level, as if it has suddenly dawned on him that if he is to match Vickery's contribution to the red-rose cause, he will have to push his tackle-count into double figures, carry the ball yards rather than inches and generally play the kind of "line in the sand" rugby that was the West Countryman's trademark.
Leicester will help him achieve all this, and perhaps more, for it is the hardest of hard-knock schools. Thanks to the brilliant Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni, he is in the peculiar position of being more of a first-choice player at international level than he is at club level. "I trust the judgement of Richard Cockerill [the Tigers' director of rugby], so I'm challenging Dan to play well enough to make Richard want to pick him for every game," says Rowntree. It is the unforgiving nature of life at Welford Road that will be the making of Cole.
"Julian White sets the intensity of our club training," he says, referring to another England tight-head specialist of recent vintage. "Before him, it was Martin Corry. Before Martin, it was Ben Kay. People like that don't hold back on you when the session is on, but afterwards, they're always happy to sit down with you and tell you where you're going wrong."
It was in these pages just last month that one of Cole's club-mates, the fresh-faced centre Anthony Allen, suggested that Leicester's once notorious Tuesday "bloodbath sessions" had become a little conciliatory in recent seasons. The prop raises an eyebrow and glowers for a second before muttering: "Really? I'm sure we can sort that out for Anthony easily enough."
Power Play: How the front rows measure up at Twickenham
Dan Cole v Benn Robinson
Cole is a "big unit", to use the current jargon, and big units are generally better than little ones. But short, spherical loose heads like Robinson can sometimes make life awkward for the more substantial members of the front-row union. Cole has the advantage of confidence, after his exploits in Sydney in June.
Dylan Hartley v Stephen Moore
Hartley's energy is a valuable asset and his handling skills, much in evidence against the All Blacks, are top-notch. Today, his scrummaging work will come under the microscope. If Northampton's captain can lord it over Moore, the key figure in the Wallaby front row, he will secure his place in the line-up.
Andrew Sheridan v Ben Alexander
The England loose head's reputation as a breaker of opposition scrums rests largely on his manhandling of under-powered Wallaby tight heads, most notably at Twickenham in 2005 and in the World Cup quarter-final two years later. But Alexander is no one's poodle, as he proved in London last season.Reuse content