It has taken Dan Cole barely a calendar month to cement his position in the England team – not simply as an automatic choice at tight-head prop, which is quite an achievement in itself given his tender years, but as one of the first names on Martin Johnson's team list. It is not meant to happen this quickly, as generations of frustrated front-rowers will grumpily testify. Back in the days when Robin Cowling could be seen scrummaging for more than an hour against one of the grislier French packs while suffering from a busted collarbone, no one made it into the Test arena without paying his dues. Cole, still seven weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, does not even pay for his own beer.
Why would he? For one thing, England players drink for free, in so far as they drink at all; for another, he is the toast of Leicester and can therefore wander into any pub in that rugby-driven city and expect to keep his wallet in his pocket. His recent performances for club and country have been exceptional, to the extent that he is already assured of a major role at next year's World Cup in New Zealand. Not half bad for a Johnny-come-lately with the grand total of four caps in his kitbag.
Yet Cole is enough of a prop's prop to understand that one poor performance will undermine his reputation among those fellow troglodytes who do their dirty work in the darkened recesses of scrum and maul. This evening's meeting with Thomas Domingo, the squat little endomorph from the Correze, holds few terrors for him – after all, he first announced his candidacy for top honours by subduing both Domingo and his fellow French international Lionel Faure during a Heineken Cup match with Clermont Auvergne shortly before Christmas – but if the entire England pack cop it from a fierce Tricolore unit hell-bent on securing another Six Nations Grand Slam, there will be no escaping the collective pain and humiliation.
"It's probably the biggest match I've ever played," Cole acknowledges. "The French have looked pretty awesome over the course of this tournament and Domingo has duffed up a few opponents on the way through. He's an old-fashioned loose head in terms of shape – the very opposite of someone like Andrew Sheridan – and he scrummages as a loose head should scrummage. These smaller blokes [Domingo is shorter than Danny Care, the diminutive England scrum-half] can be really awkward and as we've already played against each other this season, he'll probably bring something new to the Stade de France with him. It's up to me to work him out again and find a way to get by."
Cole has already discovered one of the age-old truths of front-row play: that the set piece is always a game in itself, and the next game is always different from the last. Against Ireland three weeks ago, the scrum was controlled with great authority by the South African referee Mark Lawrence and the newcomer revelled in the straightforward, shenanigan-free nature of the contest. Last week in Edinburgh, another official from Springbok country, Marius Jonker, lost his grip of the first-phase battle so completely that it sometimes took three minutes to complete a single engagement.
"If you're asking me to compare the two experiences, I much preferred the first one," Cole says, narrowing his eyes at the mere mention of the Scots and their nefarious ways. "Against Ireland, we all knew where we stood: it was a true test of strength and technique and I felt we came out on top. In Scotland, whenever we were down and ready to engage, they would stand up and back off. We wanted to take them on fair and square, but the whole thing descended into semi-farce.
"It's possible to argue that the French are the best scrummagers in the world right now. Their forwards have a real attitude about them, from one to eight: they recognise the importance of the set piece, thrive on the confrontation and make it a point of honour to dominate their opponents. In my previous meetings with them at club level – I've played against Perpignan as well as Clermont – I was left with the very strong impression that they like to dish it out, and I don't suppose I'll find it any different facing their Test team. But none of us intend to bend down and take it, so to speak. We're relishing the contest."
Rapid as his ascent has been, Cole is determined to stay true to his values, one of which can be summed up as follows: assume nothing, but fight for everything. "I don't feel established as an England player and there's a part of me that doesn't want to feel established. Fear is one of my drivers, the thing that makes me bust my balls and fight my corner every day. I might change if I allowed myself to think I was the No 1 player in my position. For the same reason, I'm not thinking beyond this game in Paris. I know there's a lot of big rugby to be played over the next 18 months or so, but looking too far ahead gets you nowhere. If I made that mistake, I'd probably find that the person playing those big games was someone other than me."Reuse content