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On England, Eddie Jones’ advice and a ‘serious eye-opener’ against South Africa


The more you look into the story of Nic Dolly, the 22-year old at Leicester Tigers who is England’s newest hooker, the more you are tempted to believe in rugby fairytales.

Dolly made his debut for England as a replacement against South Africa at Twickenham two weeks ago, helping to secure a 27-26 win over the world champions.

In his 20 minutes on the field he was throwing line-outs to Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes that were contested by Eben Etzebeth, and rubbing cheeks in the front row with Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch; World Cup finalists all.

And Dolly, with his fair-haired mullet poking through his scrum cap? He had about 20 hours of senior club rugby behind him, and that includes quasi-second-team competitions such as the Premiership Cup and British & Irish Cup.

At the top domestic level of the Premiership, he has precisely 376 minutes across eight appearances for Leicester since he joined from second-division Coventry last spring.

“The [England] day was mental for me, a serious eye-opener,” Dolly says now, as he prepares to take on Harlequins in the Premiership on Sunday. “We get serious amounts of fans at Leicester but I hadn’t played in front of a crowd that big. You want to play the best teams and they [South Africa] are the best team. I don’t think I’d want to have it any other way.”

Dolly has scored six tries for Leicester, mostly with the ball tucked under one arm and the other arm bound on to the Tigers’ thunderous maul. This scoring proficiency recalls the days of former Leicester hero Neil Back, and bookmakers close to Welford Road eventually refusing to take bets on the blond flanker as the first try scorer.

“One of the things I love about coaching is helping people achieve their ambitions,” says Steve Borthwick, the Leicester director of rugby. “To see him [Dolly] playing for England is just fantastic.”

Dolly says that he loves throwing and Borthwick, the former England lock, loves catching. So that’s simple enough. The tale of how Dolly got here is anything but. His mum Sharon was from Manchester, and she moved to Australia after her schooldays. The Sydney-born Dolly made several visits to England as a boy, including watching matches at the 2015 World Cup.

Aged 17 in late 2016, Dolly and his mum and his brother Alex – who is now a scrum-half at Doncaster – and sisters came over for the Christmas and New Year holidays, and he asked his grandad Tony to find him somewhere to keep his fitness up with the intention of resuming rugby back at his club in northern Sydney, where the limit of his achievements had been playing for New South Wales Combined Catholic Colleges.

“I never had aspirations, when I was younger,” says Dolly. “I didn’t really see a professional pathway in Australia. My granddad, he’s mad for rugby, a few emails flew about and they got me in touch with an academy manager at Sale and it snowballed from there. The obvious decision was to repay the country that had given me the opportunity.”

Still there were only sporadic first-team look-ins for Sale and Rotherham and Jersey, plus England’s Under-20s in 2019, that led Dolly to three starts and three tries for Coventry in the Championship last March. But it coincided with Leicester knowing their incoming Argentina hooker Julian Montoya would be away on international duty, and former club captain Tom Youngs taking indefinite leave in October to be with his wife, who is battling an illness.

Borthwick says of Dolly: “When I first met him, he had a great attitude to work hard.” And then there is Eddie Jones, the England head coach and, a couple of generations ago, also a hooker in New South Wales. “We spoke about it,” says Dolly, “and Eddie would say himself he was a small hooker and, I guess, with the size of everyone now, I am quite a small hooker – so for me it is about throwing myself about, getting stuck in and being as aggressive as I can.”

Jones has compared Dolly with Dylan Hartley, who came from New Zealand as a teenager and ended up winning 97 caps as an England hooker. “He [Dolly] will give you everything he has got,” Jones said recently.

Dolly set up a fitness and training business after his release by Sale, and he accepts these references to his resilience by Borthwick and Jones without fuss. And this despite his father Michael telling an Australian newspaper how New South Wales’s schools selectors had once complained of a lack of workrate.

“Setbacks are inevitable – it’s about how you bounce back from them,” says Dolly. “I didn’t go to private school and I was never picked up by the schools that were major feeders for the [NSW] Waratahs. After getting released from Sale, I always saw myself getting back into the Premiership. If you’re not willing to work hard then your resilience is null and void, really.”

He remained friends with Sale’s England back-rower Tom Curry, at whose place Dolly used to kip for a few nights a week after gym sessions, and it was a touching moment when Curry presented Dolly with his England cap at Twickenham two Saturdays ago. “I couldn’t really have asked for anyone else to present it,” Dolly says. “He is a close mate of mine and he knows how much I have had to put in to get where I am.”

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