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Dan Cole: Missing magnums, playing in jeans, packing down with girls

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Dan Cole becoming a Test centurion was one of the sights of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations that you could never have imagined happening before the tournament started. The tighthead hadn’t been capped by England since bearing the brunt of the dominant Springboks scrum at the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and now aged 35, he figured his Test career was long since over. Then everything changed overnight.

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Steve Borthwick, his Leicester coach, succeeded Eddie Jones as the England boss, Cole swiftly returned to the international fold and there he was – five caps later – being handed a celebratory magnum of champagne in the Aviva Stadium dressing room after his fifth appearance as a replacement in the championship vaulted him up to the milestone 100 mark.

Cole survived the historic Dublin night intact. There were drinks with the legendary Jason Leonard; bundles of video and text messages, the content of which he prefers not to divulge. But what became of the massive magnum? “It’s being freighted back,” he revealed on Wednesday, 11 days after joining the 100-caps-for-his-country-club.

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“It was too big to get in my hand luggage and my backpack, so it got given to the kit man and hopefully it’s somewhere in the country. I haven’t been told where. I need to chase that up, but I don’t have that many friends to be able to drink it all in one go so I don’t know what I will do with it,” he chuckled before referencing his high jinks with Leonard and all those messages he received.

“That was a memorable part of the night from what I can remember. He [Leonard] brought across drinks, and we had a drink together. It was a good night. He was delighted to have someone to drink with.

“I got a couple of nice video messages that the squad arranged, lots of text messages. I’m grateful for what came through. There was a lot and some that stuck out but none that I will talk about. You appreciate them all. I’m very fortunate I have had a long career. Too many to thank – all those people who helped you. Fortunately, I had a long career with some milestones along the way which I am very appreciative of.”

The centurion prop had humble beginnings in the game. Ahead of Friday night’s Heineken Champions Cup round-of-16 encounter versus Edinburgh, the Leicester stalwart shed light on how it all started, how he played in jeans the first night down at his grassroots rugby club and he wound up packing down with a Belgian women’s team as a 15-year-old on tour to make up the numbers.

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With a nod and a wink, he took us back to those carefree days. “I started playing at Kibworth High School, they had a rugby team there and I did rugby and PE. A couple of boys who were at South Leicester said, ‘Come along’. I went there on a Thursday evening and basically did my first training session in jeans because I just turned up to check it out and the next second, they said, ‘Let’s play’.

“It was brilliant, a great club. We went on tour to Holland at U15s and the team we were supposed to play didn’t turn up. They got in an U18s Belgian ladies side but they didn’t have enough players, so they did a draft and they obviously recognised talent when they saw it – I was the first pick and played a game. It was a bit strange but a good tour.

“I was better at rugby than football and just enjoyed the game. It was a lot different. The whole coming from football where you used to literally turn up in the car, play the game and go home to a setup where home games you would turn up in a shirt and tie and everyone would go in the clubhouse after for a drink – we had the sausage, chips, pint of coke – and it was just a good thing. I really enjoyed it. Still do.”

Hard work is the elixir keeping Cole trim despite the notion that rugby is supposedly now more of a younger person’s game. “When you enjoy what we do you want to keep doing it and in today’s day and age you can’t just turn up on a Saturday and play, you have to do the work during the week.

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“You want to keep up with the guys. There are constantly guys in the squad wanting to improve and get better and you want to keep up with those guys. I’m fortunate here at Leicester with so many great players, great coaches that you have a reason to come into work and want to work and improve yourself.

“I’m looking forward to Friday night, that’s all I am looking forward to. We can’t look any further past that. It is a massive challenge. A European game on a Friday night, that is what you want to be playing in. It means a lot. We didn’t qualify for a couple of years and you realise how special the competition is.

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“Playing last year after a couple of years in the Challenge Cup, you remember how big a competition and how special it is and what it means to the club and everyone around it. Yes, we have a history from 23 years ago, whatever it is, but big European nights are what you look forward to if you get this far.”

A trip back to Dublin is the prize up for grabs as title favourites Leinster, who host Ulster on Saturday, are tipped to provide the quarter-final opposition for the winners of this Leicester-Edinburgh tie.

Although England were ultimately beaten on their trip there, Ireland producing a last-quarter flourish to clinch the Grand Slam, Cole would return there with a spring in his step, buoyed by the personal achievement of making it back on the Test scene after so long away.

“I didn’t think I was going to be picked. When that first squad was announced after the 2019 World Cup, I thought that was it pretty much done. You never give up but fortunately, when you are 70 years old you still think you can play for your country, so you never give up entire hope. But at the same time, I didn’t think I was going to get selected.

“I was fortunate at Leicester that Steve was coming in (in 2020) and we had a big rebuild here, something to throw yourself into. I was very fortunate we built a very good team at Leicester (that won the 2022 Premiership title). You are challenged every day, challenged by people who you want to get for and that has allowed me to get back into the England set up.

“It [the scrum] was an improvement. You look at the statistics, playable ball etc, penalties, the one last week we definitely improved. It gave us a stable platform to play off. There is still improvement to go. I know the work Steve and the guys put in, we wanted to improve and speaking to those guys there is still a lot more we want to do to get better.

“There were certain things referees looked at. Sometimes they were more focused on tighthead and staying square and other times it was looseheads and keeping them in. Steve wanted the scrum not to give away penalties and wanted it as a platform to play off.

“If you win a penalty, you can get 40, 50 yards up the field. The emphasis was more on the scrum in some regards because of the way the game is at the minute, but a scrum is a scrum – the mentality now that was still the same as when I first started.”

What was Cole’s general verdict on England, though, following their third successive two-wins-from-five campaign? “There were a lot of ups and downs. Maybe the performance in Wales was the best moment.

“Steve came in and from where the squad was, results don’t reflect it but it was a step forward and there is still a long way to go, a lot of improvement and hard work to be done but hopefully that can be done in the pre-season.”

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Jon 2 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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