At 35, former England tighthead Dan Cole is arguably playing as well as ever for Leicester Tigers, as his performance in the East Midlands derby reinforced
Dan Cole still delivering, still the boss
Talk of Dan Cole earning an England recall proved unfounded, the Leicester forward not making the 36-strong squad selected for a three-day training camp that starts on Sunday. Bath’s Will Stuart and Tigers team-mate Joe Heyes, both younger by far, are the chosen No 3s.
Yet there is no denying the form of 35-year-old Cole, whose impact in Leicester’s 41-21 defeat of Northampton last weekend was such that he even picked up the Man of the Match award – a real rarity for a tighthead prop. Tigers were awarded seven scrum penalties to one, with Old King Cole leading the assault. Saints had three players carded, including Cole’s opposite number Emmanuel Iyogun.
England’s fourth-most capped player, Cole is no merry old soul. Rather, he has a reputation for grumpiness, as Toby Flood conceded in a recent RW interview. “I think he’s grumpy in the nicest sense of the word. It’s grumpiness blended with frustration,” says Flood, who played with Cole for England and shared a house with him during his Leicester days.
“He keeps himself to a level where not many professional sportsmen hold themselves, on and off the field. When he feels others around him aren’t maintaining those high standards, that’s when that frustration/grumpiness kicks in. He’s a very affable guy but it’s a dichotomy. A paradox between someone who wants to relax and have fun and someone willing to sacrifice a huge amount for the team, as he has.”
For Cole, a day off is an opportunity to press ahead, to get on his bike or fit in a mobility session. There’s a reason why even as a tighthead prop he often leads the kick chase.
Scrummaging is his bread and butter, of course – “I wouldn’t have a job without it,” he quipped after the Saints match – and like all prop forwards he has had torrid days amongst the triumphant ones.
The 2019 World Cup, his last appearance in an England shirt, brought despair. And unfair criticism as the scrum problems that day stemmed from pressure exerted by Boks tighthead Frans Malherbe on Mako Vunipola, with the weight piling onto Cole and Jamie George.
A happier day was the carnage he inflicted on Ireland in 2012, when England exploited a Mike Ross injury to win six scrum penalties, a penalty try and three strikes against the head.
That was Test cap 28, and 70 more followed, three of them for the 2013 Lions. Not bad for a former football centre-back who got roped into playing rugby when turning up to watch pre-season training at South Leicester RFC. He was wearing trainers, black jeans and a T-shirt when he joined in.
Cole initially played back-row – his jackaling has always been a strength – but the die was cast after he switched to the front row during a tens tournament at 15. Although he had to bide his time at Leicester, with a couple of years on loan at Bedford to accelerate his development, he learned from the best.
“He went the long way round, he had to sit by and wait with Castro (Martin Castrogiovanni) ahead of him,” says Flood. “He was really pushing Castro hard at the time, even though he was 21, 22, but he put Leicester ahead of his own personal goals, which was testament to him as a bloke.
“He learned a huge amount from Castro, Julian White, Boris Stankovich and Mefin Davies. Somehow I managed to get involved in a coffee club with Dan and Boris and Mefin and they would sit and talk about propping for hours. I don’t know why I was there to be honest! But he was devoted to the cause.”
All these years on, Cole is now the educator, with Heyes the next Tigers tighthead destined for big things. The man they call Colar Bear is respected for his longevity, his ability to adapt to ever-changing laws. But if you’re part of his inner circle, he also lightens the mood.
“When he’s around people who he trusts and has time for, he’s a very, very funny guy,” Flood adds. “He brings a huge amount of comedy and laughter. He’s a fantastic guy to have at a club. He holds you all to account but at the same time when you’re at a level where he feels you should be he is very dry, very funny.”
In his book Loose Head, Joe Marler calls Cole the grumpiest man in rugby but his affection for his front-row buddy is clear. He recounts how on the 2017 Lions tour, the two men had been put in charge of sourcing props for the end-of-tour ‘court’ session.
As they carried their shopping back to the hotel, they were forced to stop alongside some Lions fans at a pedestrian crossing. A young lad peered into Cole’s bag and asked his father, “Daddy, what’s all that stuff?”
Hearing this, Cole shot across the road without waiting for the lights to change – his bag contained dildos, nipple tassels, lube and butt plugs newly purchased from a sex shop!
His Leicester boss Steve Borthwick, against whom Cole played on his Tigers debut at Bath back in 2007, is full of admiration for the man anchoring the Tigers scrum.
“Dan embodies everything that is good about Leicester Tigers,” he said. “And I don’t mean just now, I mean through the ages. Hard-working, tough, humble. Wanting to get better, wanting to compete hard. Dan embodies all of that.
“He doesn’t seem to age. He looks the same as he did when he was 21. When he came in for pre-season he looked in incredible shape. That’s a guy who is determined to keep playing at the top level for a long time.”
The win at Franklin’s Gardens was Cole’s 293rd Premiership appearance. He has won four Premiership titles (2009, 2010, 2013 and 2022) to go with his 95 England and three Lions caps.
Asked by the Leicester Mercury how long he can play for, he replied: “Forever. As long as you enjoy the game. We’ve got guys in the team pushing 40 like Gopperth and Wigglesworth. They’ve got five years on me. They’re just an inspiration to all the youngsters out there.”
We ask Flood how he would sum Cole up.
“No fluff. That’s the best way to put it. He doesn’t suffer fools. And he doesn’t allow standards to drop. For a guy who is 35, he brings a remarkable level of performance. I have all the time in the world for him. He’s one of life’s good people.”
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