Planet rugby was a very different place when Jack Rowell, the razor-tongued martinet who bestrode the British club game for a decade from the mid-1980s, felt able to inform the many internationals in his team: "You may think that's good enough for England, but it isn't good enough for Bath." Yet even now, 17 years into the professional era, club can still lord it over country. Ask Dan Cole, who has spent a good deal of his career trying to square his status as a first-choice international prop with second-class citizenhood in the Premiership.
It is a mark of Cole's increasing authority as a tight-head scrummager that he has finally started to win his personal battle with the wild-haired Italian swamp creature Martin Castrogiovanni at Leicester. It has taken him an awfully long time, but the fact that the competition at Welford Road has been significantly stronger than the rivalry at red-rose level has benefited everyone involved, including the England team. If Cole is in the middle of a purple patch, it is for the simple reason that anything less would have seen him sitting on the Tigers' bench rather than starting the decisive games towards the end of the last domestic campaign.
This afternoon at Ellis Park, where many a visiting prop has found himself on the painful end of a Springbok seeing-to, Cole will resume his set-piece contest with Tendai Mtawarira, the Zimbabwean forward who answers to the delicate nickname "Beast". The Englishman is not taking this lightly for a second – "It was a tough afternoon in Durban last week; Mtawarira is a strong bloke and one of the better loose heads in the sport, for sure," he says – but after weeks, months and years of fighting Castrogiovanni for a place in the Leicester starting line-up, he is not particularly fazed.
"Richard Cockerill [the director of rugby at Leicester] told me a while ago that when it came to selection, the best player would be picked," Cole recalls. "I signed a new contract with the club on that basis, because I knew it would then be down to me to be that person." Since when, he has proved his point time and again. During the Six Nations, he was England's outstanding tight forward and would have been the pick of the entire pack had the captain Chris Robshaw been just a little less effective.
If the red-rose scrum suffered its share of indignities at Kings Park a week ago, it was not because Mtawarira outmanoeuvred Cole in the way he embarrassed Phil Vickery in the first Test of the Lions tour in 2009. Far from it. England's problems at the set-piece were the result of over-enthusiasm at the engagement – repeated errors of the schoolboy variety that resulted in the Antipodean referee Steve Walsh, never one to give the English an even break, awarding a series of free kicks to the South Africans. What was the cause of this sudden outbreak of indiscipline? Imbecility, according to Cole.
"Once is silly, twice is fairly stupid, three times is retarded," he says, grumpily. "The decisions were fair enough: it was early in the game, some of us were a bit on the excited side and we got it wrong. The people responsible have been spoken to and they won't be doing it again. They'll get a whack if they do. Graham Rowntree [the forwards coach] pointed out that we'd been pinged only three times in a whole year, so to concede three in a single quarter was not ideal at all.
"I think it was all the more frustrating because our lineout went better than a lot of people thought. Everyone knows what Tom Croft [the Leicester flanker and aerial specialist] brings to that part of our game and when we lost him through injury before the tour, we were expected to struggle. But when you look at the work Geoff Parling puts into the lineout, look at the way he runs it on the field… we felt we'd be competitive there in Durban, and we were."
This will be Cole's third crack at the Boks and he is due a win. His first, at Twickenham in the autumn of 2010, ended 21-11 to the visitors: close enough on paper, but a 10-point battering in reality. England were battered again last week, if only in a one-sided third quarter that tipped the argument South Africa's way. It is beginning to dawn on the 26-year-old prop that win or lose, a date with these particular opponents is always painful.
"Play the Australians or the New Zealanders and there's an element of deception to their game," he says. "The South Africans? They like to run over you, basically."
Does he buy into the mythology of Springbok rugby, which for more than a century has portrayed green-shirted forwards as bigger, tougher and infinitely more ruthless than any of their peers? "Not really," he replies. "They're not mythical beings, are they? They're human beings at the end of the day. If you take that stuff seriously, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
That being said, there was something about the Boks after the half-time interval in Durban that set them apart. They were different somehow: more aggressive, more direct, more intense. "That," admits Cole, "was where we lost the match. We didn't find a way of dealing with the attrition by exiting our own half and once they started to win the gain-line battle and play their runners in – people like Bryan Habana, who is very dangerous – we were defending ourselves into the ground. The game opened up for them then."
So how do England set about bridging the second-half gap? "The interval is important because there's so much going on," Cole explains. "You have to get your heart-rate down, take on all the relevant technical information and then get yourself back up again. It seems the Springboks made a better job of that last week, so we need to match them. But then, if you can't get up for a game of this kind, in the very heart of South African rugby, you're struggling. We can't compromise on it. If someone needs a slap in the face at half-time, so be it."
Generally speaking, folk do not queue up to slap Cole around the chops: not even fully paid-up members of the Springbok pack. Will he do some of the tough talking at Ellis Park? "What needs to be said will be said," he replies with a narrowing of the eyes.
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