England strand on the brink of equalling New Zealand's world record for successive victories with the only ever-present during their triumphant run ready to embrace his most productive years.
Dan Cole is the solitary player to have started every instalment of the 17-Test winning sequence that will see the All Blacks' milestone equalled if Scotland are dispatched in Saturday's RBS 6 Nations clash at Twickenham.
Despite operating exclusively at tighthead, the most punishing of positions, Cole has emerged as England's most durable player.
Lions starting XV - Six Nations round three
Lions starting XV - Six Nations round three
1/15 15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Miles clear of Mike Brown and Rob Kearney and looks a much better option for running the ball than Leigh Halfpenny right now. Hogg has been nothing short of brilliant going forwards, and despite not possessing the kicking option or the defensive nous of Halfpenny, he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet.
2/15 14. Liam Williams (Wales)
Ousts international teammate George North after the Northampton Saints wing proved anonymous against Scotland. Williams has scored a try in every round so far and is proving his weight in gold as a finisher, while he’s also accustomed to coming off his wing to find work.
3/15 13. Jonathan Davies (Wales)
He is still the safest option at outside centre, but the chasing pack are closing in after a strong weekend for 13s. Garry Ringsrose is improving with every week, while Huw Jones offers more with the ball in hand than Davies, whose powerful and direct running keep him in the side. Ben Te’o also showed what he can offer, though time is running out for him and Jonathan Joseph is likely to come back into the England side to face Scotland.
4/15 12. Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Henshaw gives you the understanding with Jonathan Sexton combined with a player who not only thrives on front-foot ball but also can cope with beating the gain line when on the back-foot – a very handy trait to have in the locker. He can also cover at outside centre, which on a Lions tour is a major boost.
5/15 11. Elliot Daly (England)
Deals with every challenge thrown at him and crossed the try line for the second match running to help trigger the fightback against Italy. Possesses a reliable, howitzer of a left foot, which is Halfpenny is out of the side will be a useful tool in New Zealand.
6/15 10. Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
Returned in style to force Owen Farrell out of the side and prove he will not give up the Lions 10 jersey easily. Injuries have dogged him this season, but it took him 40 minutes to show what he can offer as he got the Irish backline firing on all cylinders.
7/15 9. Conor Murray (Ireland)
Had Greig Laidlaw been available this week, Murray could still have forced his way back in to the side. A man-of-the-match display in Dublin – including the only try of the game – helped Ireland record back-to-back wins and his box-kicking remains the best in the business.
8/15 1. Mako Vunipola (England)
His impact from the bench was certainly noticeable as the English scrum finally got the better of the Italian pack, and with plenty of time for the loosehead to regain full fitness, there’s no reason why he won’t don the No 1 shirt on 24 June as long as he avoids any more setbacks.
9/15 2. Rory Best (Ireland)
He’s still ahead of Dylan Hartley, but Jamie George is breathing down his neck and it’s only down to Best’s strong performance against France – with a 100 per cent lineout record from 17 throws – and a solid defensive showing that keeps him in the side. With leaders elsewhere though, George might just find himself in favour come the end of the Six Nations.
10/15 3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
He re-established the gap between himself and Dan Cole with a very impressive outing in the loose for Ireland, and he is also a third of one of Europe’s strongest front-rows right now.
11/15 4. Joe Launchbury (England)
The England lock has to come into the side after yet another man-of-the-match performance against Italy. The Wasps skipper is giving Warren Gatland plenty to think about, having proven himself in the lineout and also with his desire to carry. But with Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray, Devin Toner and Courtney Lawes also knocking on the door, not to mention the injured George Kruis hoping to somehow prove his fitness, it’s an awfully difficult task to pick the second-row.
12/15 5. Jonny Gray (Scotland)
Gray shifts from four to five but remains the standout option in the Six Nations based on the last three rounds. Having started the championship as possible squad inclusion, he’s suddenly looking undroppable from the first XV.
13/15 6. Maro Itoje (England)
Itoje offers too much to the squad to leave out. He packs down in the second-row for England, leads the lineout by example with another two steals at the weekend, and is both a formidable tackler and carrier. He simply has to slot in somewhere, and he’s currently making the No 6 shirt his own.
14/15 7. Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Tipuric holds onto the shirt despite experiencing a difficult week given that there is not much competition around. Neither James Haskell nor John Hardie – now out for the rest of the Six Nations – were able to take their chance at the weekend, and while Sean O’Brien and Hamish Watson impressed, you’d still rather have a livewire like Tipuric in the side.
15/15 8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Billy Vunipola finally drops out of the side after hinting that a Six Nations return may be beyond him. In comes Ireland’s vice-captain Jamie Heaslip, and with Taulupe Faletau yet to find his best from the replacements’ bench, it’s Heaslip who has led the way with strong outings against Italy and France.
He has started 22 consecutive Tests and appeared in 75 of the 86 Red Rose internationals staged since he made his debut in 2010, winning a further three British and Irish Lions caps along the way.
Still only 29 years old, the Leicester front row will anchor England's scrum against the Scots believing his best rugby is to come.
"I think the peak years for props are 29, 30, 31, so I don't think I've peaked yet," Cole said.
"You learn all the time. We're constantly being pushed as individuals to get better, whether it's on the field or off the field. With myself, I feel better now than I did a year or two ago.
"Personally I feel better than I've ever done. I can't give you any statistics to back that up, but I'm sure there are some physical stats."
When asked for the secret behind his durability, Cole said: "Doing the bare minimum and not touching the ball!
"No, Eddie Jones has put a big emphasis on a lot of recovery work after every training session and that has definitely helped myself and a lot of other boys.
"As a front rower your spine and hips take a big pounding so we do a lot of work like ice baths, massage, stretching. There is a big focus on that now.
"Throughout rugby there has been a big shift in emphasis on to that and with England that has been more so than any other team I have been involved in."
Cole was unaware on his unique place England's march towards the record books, but recalls that the run was born amid the ruins of the failed home World Cup.
It started with a 60-3 rout of Uruguay in Manchester one week after the hosts had been consigned to a chastening group exit, an event that ushered in the Jones era and a further 16 Test wins.
"It's nice to play for England at any time and to play consecutive games and be a part of this team - you feel good," Cole said.
"That's especially so off the back of what it came from, so you feel good to be involved and to have played through it.
"I think the potential of the squad was there. Eddie then came in with a clear vision of how he wanted to play and stuck at it."
Cole's contribution has earned has earned a rich tribute from England's scrum coach Neal Hatley.
"What Dan does for club and country is phenomenal. There are very few tightheads who bang out games as consistently as he's been doing it a long time. He plays a lot of minutes," Hatley said.
"He's unbelievably dogmatic. He has real faith in his ability and he's tough. He's obviously come through the tough school - Leicester where it was contact three or four times a week.
"He's been one of the top tighthead scrummagers in world rugby for the last seven or eight years.
Meanwhile, England have confirmed that Billy Vunipola will be unleashed upon Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday.
Vunipola marked his comeback after three months out with a knee injury by playing 72 minutes of Saracens' Aviva Premiership victory over Newcastle on Sunday, demonstrating his fitness in time for the final two rounds of the Six Nations.Reuse content