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FEATURE Bloodied but unbowed Dan Cole prepares for final hurrah

Bloodied but unbowed Dan Cole prepares for final hurrah
2 weeks ago

For the king of low key, there is something fitting about Dan Cole equalling the record for the most-capped England forward from the bench this weekend.

The venerable tight-head has spent his entire career trying to avoid the limelight, so shuffling on for the last half hour in Dunedin for cap number 114 will suit him just fine.

The less fanfare the better. If he could slope off in an invisibility cloak afterwards he would.

With apologies to Cole though, this is a landmark worthy of making a fuss about.

Drawing level with a legend like Jason Leonard may feel “weird” in Cole’s own words but it underscores his own underplayed status in the English game.

One of the great servants of England rugby, he has spilled blood for the red rose in rugby’s most punishing position for 14 long years. You shudder to imagine the scrum forces his body has been subject to over that period, not to mention the collision impacts.

Dan Cole
Dan Cole has a special place in the heart for England fans after 14 years at the coalface (Photo Dan Mullan – RFU/Getty Images)

The physical resilience is only the half of it however.

Cole’s second coming as an England prop has shown a tungsten mental resolve too.

The easy thing for him to do would have been to disappear into comfortable club obscurity after his 2019 World Cup final beasting at the hands of Tendai Mtawarira.

At his stage of rugby life – he was already 33 then – that numbing experience should, logically, have represented the painful full stop to his Test career.

Pensioned off by Eddie Jones afterwards, it looked like it would be. Only Cole was still the best English scrummaging tight-head in the Premiership. His personal pride – and his loyalty to Leicester – demanded that standards had to be maintained. So when Steve Borthwick took over as England head coach and decided he needed a reliable No 3 to shape his setpiece around, it had to be Cole that he turned to three years on.

Borthwick cherishes the wisdom and sagacity Cole brings around the camp, the lugubrious personality which serves as an anti-stress agent to those around him.

He is not as quick as he used to be – and he wasn’t that quick in the first place – but Cole’s value to Borthwick in his rebuild has been immeasurable. He has been the slab of scrum granite Borthwick sought.

Had he only been able to manage a full 80 minutes against the Springboks in last year’s World Cup semi-final – an impossible ask given the opponents, the conditions and his age – England would have eliminated the eventual winners. As it was he was able to banish the personal demons from that night in Yokohama with a mighty display against the most powerful scrum in the world.

It isn’t just his contribution in the crusher and as an unflashy ruck clearer which is of continuing use to what is, post France 2023, a young England side. Borthwick cherishes the wisdom and sagacity he brings around the camp, the lugubrious personality which serves as an anti-stress agent to those around him.

Lately, his self-deprecating dry wit thas been revealed to a wider audience.

In one of the most surprising sporting career moves of recent times, he has become a hit podcaster.

Zany Joe Marler, his odd couple front row friend, was always an obvious candidate for the genre. Cole less so.

He has endeavoured to limit his public utterances to a minimum down the years – that desire to avoid the gaze was always to the fore. But those of us tasked with prising a few sentences out of him always suspected that the space inside that bald bonce was an interesting one.

His audio double act with his more gregarious Tigers teammate Ben Youngs – after this weekend the only man ahead of him in the England cap stakes – has shown the human side to the well-read and worldly-wise Colar Bear.

But for the post-Japan exile Cole would have been well ahead of Youngs as England’s most capped player.

Could he still make it past him? Assuming he plays in the Second Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park, he would be 12 caps shy.

Cole would need to play on and stay fit until the autumn of 2026 to have a chance of overtaking Youngs by which point he would be 38 and a half. That is a stretch.

At some point too his 123kg body may say enough. Maybe that time will come this summer as he quietly reflects on matching – and then passing – Leonard who texted him ahead of the tour congratulating him on the mark he was about to reach.

He has spoken in the past of the debt he owes to his wife Isobel – Youngs’s cousin and a Leicestershire florist – and about missing their twin boys Ralph and Henry when he is away on tours like these. At some point the domestic scales will need to be rebalanced.

At some point too his 123kg body may say enough. Maybe that time will come this summer as he quietly reflects on matching – and then passing – Leonard who texted him ahead of the tour congratulating him on the mark he was about to reach.

Perhaps Will Stuart’s elevation in Dunedin is a tip-toe towards the future.

England will have to move on eventually. But with Kyle Sinckler having signed for Toulon for the next three years, tight-head stocks aren’t exactly overflowing.

Dan Cole
England’s tighthead reserves are not overflowing which is why Cole is still grafting at 37 (Photo David Fitzgerald/Getty Images)

While Stuart has 38 caps, the other tight-head on the trip – Cole’s understudy at Leicester Joe Heyes – has just seven, five of them coming off the bench.

There are young bucks coming through behind headed by Sale teenager Asher Opoku-Fordour but the experience void is huge.

If there is one position where a player cannot be thrown into Test rugby on a whim, and with a prayer, it is tight-head.

Borthwick may be required to whisper sweet nothings into Cole’s cauliflower ear again at the end of the tour to persuade him that having wrung so much out of him England still need a few drops more.

So Borthwick may be required to whisper sweet nothings into Cole’s cauliflower ear again at the end of the tour to persuade him that having wrung so much out of him England still need a few drops more.

For the moment, it is cap number 114 he has to concern himself with.

Cole being Cole, he will appreciate the irony of his role as an impact substitute on Saturday given how rarely he actually touches the ball.

He will have his job to do though and he will do it.

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Comments

3 Comments
M
Michele 19 days ago

Love, love, love Dan Cole. I will be so sad when he retires…I guess I should join that fan club! Thanks for the article.

f
finn 19 days ago

“Cole would need to play on and stay fit until the autumn of 2026 to have a chance of overtaking Youngs by which point he would be 39 and a half. That is a stretch.”

Bad maths! He’d only need to play on until 2025, by which time he’ll be 38.

I don't know if he will do it, but he’s definitely got a chance. There are some really exciting prospects at tighthead for England (Opoku-Fordjour, Sela, Harper, Fasogbon) but I don't think any of them will break into the starting 23 for another season.

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