Dan Cole must be king of the scrum

The England prop will square off with Wales's James, and their battle could be the key to Six Nations opener.

England's Dan Cole is looking forward to a duel with Wales' Paul James tonight.
Powered by automated translation

When England's forwards pack down tonight with Wales in Cardiff for their first scrummage in front of 74,500 fans at the Millennium Stadium for the opening clash of the Six Nations, remember that Dan Cole, the tight-head prop would have preferred to collide with Gethin Jenkins and not Paul James, the man who will be opposite him.

The perceived train of thought is that the injured Jenkins is a better player than James, and that without him, and his fellow British & Irish Lions tourist Adam Jones, who is also injured, the Wales pack will be appreciably weaker.

Alongside Graham Rowntree, the former international loose-head prop and now England's assistant coach, Cole has been studying videos of the Welshman's season in order to pick up all the intricacies and minutiae of James's dark art.

Cole has clashed with the Ospreys prop before. The two grappled in the Heineken Cup last season before going face-to-face a fortnight later during the final 20 minutes of England's 30-17 victory over Wales at Twickenham.

"It's been fairly even between us," Cole said, diplomatically. "He is not as big a name as Jenkins but I reckon he's a better scrummager."

The set-to between this pair will go some way in deciding the outcome of this evening's tussle. The tight-head is the linchpin position at scrum time, and if England can put pressure on the Welsh set-piece the supply line to their impressive backs will be cut.

Cole has featured in only 11 internationals, but is learning fast. Sean Fitzpatrick, the legendary All Black hooker, is a fan, and one of his compatriots came off a distinct second best in November when Cole forced two penalties off Tony Woodcock.

Cole was just 15 when Woodcock, who boasts 74 caps, made his debut and yet the poise and power of the 23-year-old completely overwhelmed him.

"It felt good to take points off him," Cole said.

"It's my one role as a tight-head, and the scrum is my only responsibility. Sure, it's a front-five collective but the scrum is one of the main areas where I can make a real difference."

Cole is surrounded by good people and it is the continuous exposure to a single doctrine that has helped him develop so quickly.

Leicester Tigers, Cole's club, courses through his veins having been born in the hospital opposite their Welford Road ground. He shares a house with teammate Toby Flood.

Martin Johnson, the England head coach, Rowntree, John Wells, the forwards coach and even Brian Smith, the attack coach, are all steeped in Leicester tradition. By the way Cole tells it, the transition from club to country is that much easier having trained with Tigers.

"Leicester and England are cut from the same cloth. They both want to play a forwards-dominant game, so it makes it easier for me.

"At Leicester you can't afford to hold back. You basically knock each other around, and knock each other out, in some cases.

"It was a real shock when I trained with the first team at 18. I've seen several punches thrown and faces split.

"That's what happens when you get guys competing physically against each other for places."

If the Leicester unit are tight, it is because they share common interests. Cole, Flood, Johnson and George Chuter, the hooker, are all fanatical fans of American football. Cole supports Tampa Bay, and Johnson has trained with the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. Sunday's Super Bowl clearly has been under scrutiny during recent England training camps.

"I think the Steelers are going to win it," said Cole. "We were discussing it during the Conference rounds and we picked them then. Both teams are based on defence, but I think the Steelers have better experience of the situation and they will pull through."

Back to tonight's contest. Cole has never played in the Millennium Stadium, but remembers fondly his first visit there as a fan when Munster clashed with Leicester in the final of the European Cup in 2002, which the Tigers won 15-9.

"It's a great stadium. It's very supporter-friendly, it's very enclosed and loud. First time I was there, about 65,000 Munster fans were being very vocal. To be honest, it's not the stadium that excites me. You could stage the game in a field and it would still have a sense of atmosphere and occasion.

"If we can quieten down the crowd it will be a positive result for the team."