As the 36-year-old was quizzed on the Pumas’ set-piece, a heavy goods vehicle chugged past the England team hotel. “That’s them now,” quipped Cole.
The Leicester front-rower was warming to a theme. Asked what sets Argentina’s scrummaging apart historically, he grinned and shot back: “Their famous breathing techniques!”
The 102-cap England star could take his act to the Edinburgh Fringe. But this was no one-man show above a pub — Cole was playing dumb, because he clearly knows all about the Pumas’ legendary ‘Bajada’ system. Steve Borthwick knows, too, and that is chiefly why Cole will start against Argentina at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Saturday. Stop the Pumas’ unique scrum at source, and England will vastly increase their chances of a Pool D victory.
Cole was coy on the finer points of Argentina’s unorthodox set-piece method, but he has played with enough Pumas front-rowers at Leicester to know the drill.
The Bajada starts with the second rows binding around the props’ hips rather than between the legs, squeezing all the force through the hooker. In sequence, midway through the scrum, the pack will draw a sharp intake of breath and drop several inches. Next comes the collective squeeze, the props hold their ground, while everyone else drives forward — and if the technique is rock-solid, then the opposing hooker will suffer a major wave of force.
This is not meaningless minutiae: Argentina have been basing Test victories on this practice for 50-plus years. Just as Marcos Ayerza extolled the scheme to Cole at Leicester in times past, so too now does Pumas captain Julian Montoya.
“There’s something different about playing their scrums, instead of hit-and-chase it was more coming together with a squeeze. I laughed about the breathing techniques, but Argentina specifically focus on aspects like that,” said Cole. “I remember Marcos telling me a lot of their scrum is based on what happens after the engagement. They focus on the pushing contest, rather than a collapse fest.”
Cole has serious unfinished World Cup business. The scrum technician was left exposed by Kyle Sinckler’s third-minute knockout against South Africa in the 2019 final. While Sinckler cannot remember the 32-12 defeat in Yokohama due to his concussion, Cole cannot forget.
South Africa’s two sets of peerless front-row forwards did a number on England in the scrum, with Cole unable to fend off the Boks at the set-piece.
His return to Test level after three years in the wilderness represents a fine advertisement for perseverance and willpower. But however reinvigorated Cole has been at Leicester, England must now guard against Argentina trying to isolate him in the loose.
Saturday night will reveal whether England can turn back time or just go round in circles
For all Cole’s enduring scrum talents, his were never the fleetest of feet to begin with, and in Newcastle’s Mateo Carreras, Argentina possess a wing with the fastest footwork in the west. A straight shoot-out at any point between these two where Carreras has the ball could end with Cole being dinged before he has even turned around.
England boast one of the most experienced squads at this World Cup, but head coach Borthwick has refused the temptation to lean on that at scrum-half to take on the Pumas. Ben Youngs and Danny Care boast 208 more Test caps than Alex Mitchell, but the 26-year-old Northampton star has leapfrogged them both to start this weekend.
This is absolutely the correct decision, and Borthwick has rewarded performance in both match action and training, where Mitchell has been said to have starred this week. Mitchell will add impetus and quality in his service to fly-half George Ford, while also offering a sniping threat around the fringes.
Argentina boast almost endless forward power, but England will look to turn them in an area where Mitchell’s pace could prove invaluable.
Mitchell and wing Jonny May were both overlooked for initial selection, but injuries struck and now they are not just back, but jumping ahead of the competition. This is either a progressive step to select on form not reputation, or a concern on Borthwick’s initial judgment.
England’s starting lineup has nine players who featured in that 2019 final. Saturday night will reveal whether England can turn back time or just go round in circles.