Six Nations 2015: Dan Cole reveals lessons learnt at the school of hard knocks

England’s defeat in Dublin was widely blamed on the rash of silly penalties they gave away. A key member of the side, Dan Cole reveals what went wrong and the lengthy inquest that followed to ensure it doesn’t happen again

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The Independent Online

It might be seen as the mantra of failure, but there is logic to it, and from AP McCoy to Rory McIlroy, the world’s great sportspeople have always subscribed to it. “Long- term, you learn more probably in defeat than you do in victory,” said Dan Cole, the England prop who shared in his team’s Grand Slam-busting loss to Ireland last weekend.  “We wanted to win the Championship and the Grand Slam and everything. So, yes, it hurts, but it’s not the end of the world. You prefer to learn your lesson now than in the World Cup. The focus is on the next two games and the World Cup.”

England’s review of the 19-9 beating in Dublin that left the Irish as the only team who can win this season’s Grand Slam was individual and collective. With matches against Scotland and France to come in the next two weeks, and the Six Nations Championship title still to play for, Stuart Lancaster “clipped up” 20 minutes of edited highlights – or  mainly lowlights – based on the 13 mostly bone-headed penalties conceded and key moments of “frustration”, as the England head coach described bungled plays such as the attacking line-out a few metres from Ireland’s goal-line when the score was 6-3. Cole watched the whole match through with his England and Leicester front-row colleague Tom Youngs on Monday, then joined the England elite player squad of 35 players on Tuesday to sit through Lancaster’s inquest at their Surrey hotel – initially, in four sub-groups, each led by one coach from Lancaster, Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt, then everyone together in front of a big screen in the team room, discussing the conclusions drawn by the sub-groups.

Cole’s verdict on that line-out? “Throw the ball away from the 6ft 10 bloke with long arms,” he growls with gallows humour in reference to Ireland’s lock Devin Toner, who intercepted the ball before it could reach James Haskell. The chance for a try and a crucial lead in what was always going to be a tight match was gone. It had already been a risky choice by the England captain Chris Robshaw to ignore the alternative of a penalty kick at goal for three points. There was an added element of risk when the line-out caller Dave Attwood asked Dylan Hartley to throw to Haskell at the tail. But Cole revealed the thinking behind it: “We had practised during the week with a pre-set move. Looking at the video [of Ireland’s previous matches] Toner normally chased in and was defending nearer the middle or front. So we [anticipated we] could have got over the top of him. But for the first time in the tournament he stood still. Looking back, you would change the call but at the time with what we had seen of him you would make the same call.”


Another alternative was to make an arguably safer throw over a shorter distance to  Attwood or Robshaw at the front. But that was where Ireland’s menacingly resourceful Paul O’Connell was positioned; a player of vastly greater experience than his English opponents, Lancaster argued, although Attwood, Robshaw, Hartley and Haskell are hardly wet behind the ears. The point for England confronting these career-defining questions, with the World Cup looming in the autumn, is how they go about putting it right. Cole said there was no overt finger-pointing. Nor was the review a quiet chat over a cup of tea: “There is that frustration and it comes out in anger or whatever from coaches and players because they are frustrated in that. It is not just a cool, calm dissection; there is room for emotion. With things like making an exit inside our own half: trust me, we didn’t train to do what we did at the weekend. ”

England have all the aids of the digital era. A bank of computers in the area of their £3million training centre they nickname the “rat cave” enables further collective review; or a player may do it at home, sharing clips and comments with team-mates over a bespoke web-based video application.

“You have got to highlight it if someone gives away a penalty – you can’t just gloss around the issue,” he said. “You show the clip and explain it can’t be done again and what could be done better."

The minor irony of Dublin was that many observers felt the 27-year-old tight-head prop Cole had his best match of the three Tests since returning from a dispiriting year all but ruined by injury. He spent February to November 2014 recovering from a bulging disc in his neck; an injury testament to the brutal physical forces that pass through a prop’s back and neck at every scrum. A couple of games for Leicester were followed by another six weeks off with a foot injury. With Bath’s tighthead Davey Wilson injured for the Six Nations, England were relieved to recall Cole for a highly demanding comeback in the wins away to Wales and home to Italy. He had missed only one of a possible 45 Tests before his lay-off. “You get in there and the emotion takes over for five or 10 minutes and you’re just carried away with the team,” Cole recalled of the Friday night in Cardiff last month. “I was probably more pleased with this [Ireland] game than the previous two, personally speaking. The first two, it takes a bit of getting up to Test match level.”

He has previously described the lonely road travelled by the long-term injured thus: “You’re told not to do anything for three months but you’re secretly testing your arm strength at home, with press-ups or something like that. When I came back into the gym for the first session back it was nice having two working arms.” Back in the present with England, their sports scientists are meeting with Lancaster every evening and they will pull players in and out of training based on the physical workload measured by GPS technology. Cole identified simply getting his head on a pillow as a factor in his resurgence – as seen in Dublin with his bullocking run into Cian Healy in the second half, and his powerful scrummaging, although England were restricted to one put-in. “Sleep is one of the big things in recovery,” said Cole, who will reach his 50th England cap if he plays against Scotland and France.

“After an evening game, you don’t get back to your hotel until 1 or 2am. You can rarely sleep after a game  anyway. And I think we left at 10 in the morning the following day. We got back from Ireland at 1am, so it’s that sleep recovery you need. That’s when you come in on a Monday or Tuesday and your body follows your mind. In the fallow week we have just had, you let yourself be a bit more tired because there’s no game to get up for.”

Romain Poite and Nigel Owens will referee at Twickenham over the next two Saturdays, and Cole knows both well; Poite, for example, was seen as sympathetic to the British & Irish Lions’ scrum on the Australia tour of 2013. “Graham Rowntree [England’s forwards coach] will have a chat with the referee before the match and come back to us with a couple of points where we can be better,” Cole explained. 

“It’s no point slagging off the opposition. It’s very easy to say ‘the opposition does this, this and this’, and then the referee turns round and penalises you. I have no personal rapport with a referee. He might shake your hand and you listen to them. You might contest a decision and get told to go away. That’s the game. Afterwards at a dinner or a function you might see them and say ‘thanks for refereeing us’.”