Life at the coalface
April 9, 2014
© Getty Images
He might not be travelling to New Zealand in June with England, but Dan Cole's team-mates could do well to listen to his take on facing the Kiwis if they have any worries of being over-awed by the opposition. During Clive Woodward's tenure in charge of England, he only referred to New Zealand as just that, there was no talk of 'All Blacks', he did not subscribe to their aura. It was a case of mind over mystique, a view the quietly-spoken thinking man's prop Cole subscribes to.
"I don't get caught up in all that," Cole told ESPN. "They're New Zealand, they're the All Blacks, whatever you want to call them. They are what they are. They are a team with a legacy and they do things their own way. But as we found out two years ago, they aren't invincible. Yes there's a mystique, but when you play against them you look through that and they are just human."
There was a time when Cole seemed something on the path to front-row invincibility. For a tight-head he sustained few injuries and his name was inked in next to England's No.3 slot in 43 of 46 matches - two of the games he missed were duo to Lions duty and the other was rotation.
At the start of the Six Nations that has just been and gone, Cole had a stiff neck, not an uncommon occurrence for someone who spends most of the daylight hours with his body hunched, neck taut, scrummaging. England were one from two heading into their third game against Ireland. Following their win over Scotland, Cole fully expected to be involved in the reckoning. Little did he know, he had a bulging disc in his neck that was trapping a nerve and he was not going to hit a scrum in anger for the rest of the season.
"It was a nagging injury and one day I got to the gym after the Scotland game and my arm wouldn't work as well as the other one. I got sent off for a battery of scans and the specialist saw that. I was preparing for the Ireland game but then I was told I wasn't playing due to the injury and I shut down for the season.
"There wasn't a particular incident, it was just a wear-and-tear injury. I played rugby constantly for 12 months and eventually it took its toll. You are used to a stiff neck, which is one of the symptoms, as you have that every day of the week as a prop. When you get something like that, you just battle on and it got progressively worse.
"It was a bit of a shock for the first couple of days but then you realise what you've done. You think of people like Tom Croft who have done more damage than that to their neck and he came back stronger.
"But now it's getting better, but I am limited to what I can do until May when I have another scan on my neck and then hopefully if that's alright I can rest and move on. It's getting better, slowly ... it's frustrating."
Suddenly Cole had time on his hands. Where he was previously used to a regimented week of training bookended by games, Cole had a different programme to navigate. The time he was granted saw Cole start to contemplate life after rugby, an injury it seems has an enforced reminder of mortality.
"You try and stay involved. I'll be at the Leicester games and you do what the club tells you to do. You throw yourself into projects like HITZ and you're still involved with the boys. Hopefully my injury isn't too long-term, if that happens you lose perspective, but I try and stay around the guys. Yes you have more time at home but you have to use that productively whether that be study or something rather than sitting on your hands.
Packing down next to Dylan Hartley © Getty Images
"I'm doing some bits and bobs. I'm trying to do coaching badges and I'm reading and investigating what I might do post-rugby. Nothing is set in stone but I'm just having a look."
Cole is not one for the media spotlight, he is one of the quieter figures of the England team. You feel he is a prop who someone like Graham Rowntree loves working with; one of rugby's front-row scholars working with another whose focus runs from scrum to scrum. Cole admitted "it took time" to adjust from one set of scrum laws to another but while he is currently looking into post-rugby learning, he was re-educating himself on the dark arts of the front-row prior to his injury. "I think tight-heads in the professional game had to alter their game. You learn and you get better as you go along."
But Cole's injury has brought an abrupt end to his time learning and tweaking of his game to the new scrum rules. Instead of facing the All Blacks this summer, he will be waking up early to watch his team-mates from the comfort of his sofa.
"I'll have a summer at home which hopefully in the long-run won't be a bad thing. You're upset to miss the tour and the chance to play for England but with the World Cup a year away, a summer at home with the chance to rest isn't a bad thing."
And that is the end goal. With a number of internationals currently spending time recuperating and nursing bumps and bruises, some still feeling the brutal affects of a schedule that saw them go from Test rugby, to domestic, to Lions duty and back to domestic, perhaps Cole's injury is a blessing in disguise. The top of the pyramid which all the players are aiming for is the World Cup and for England and Cole, success.
"It's massive. Having been to a World Cup, you see the effect it has on people. But you can't be distracted by the goal. I need to get back fit and into the Leicester team and hopefully the England side.
"Under Stuart it's not just about the rugby, it's also about the effect we have on the community. Winning and being a positive influence through rugby is what people follow."
Dan Cole was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, who are partner to Hitz, a Premiership Rugby programme which tackles some of the greatest challenges facing young people today. Find out more here:jaguarlandrover.com/hitz/
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.