Ben Cohen is having the biggest 10 days of his life. The England World Cup- winning-winger-turned-dancing-superstar will find out tonight whether his ballroom dancing skills have taken him through to the next round of Strictly.
Then next Friday he celebrates the 10th anniversary of England's World Cup victory in Australia. They are very different moments in the 35-year-old's life, but linked by one fact - his drive to achieve in both stems from the anger and heartbreak he still feels about the death of his father.
'Thursday was the 13th anniversary of my father's death,' he said, his face suddenly still. ‘Every single thing that has happened to me since is down to that.’
By IAN STAFFORD
Proud: Ben Cohen with the Webb Ellis Trophy after winning the 2003 World Cup Final
Peter Cohen, the brother of 1966 World Cup-winner George, died from a blood clot a month after he was beaten up in his own nightclub in Northampton when attempting to break up a brawl. His three attackers were jailed for violent disorder. While they are now long freed, Cohen's son, Ben, says a day never passes without him thinking of his father. This week, in particular.
His death changed everything. 'I sat down with Wayne Smith, the Northampton head coach, and he questioned if I wanted to "p*** my career away" or to "redefine my goals". I wasn't in a good state. They were even taking hair samples from my Dad on the day of his funeral. My family were in bits, but Wayne's words struck a nerve.
'From that point on I was determined to become the best winger in the world and to win the World Cup. I was, if you like, a man on a mission, driven by anger and emotion.'
Cohen's 31 tries in his 57-cap international career between 2000-06 put him equal second alongside fellow World Cup-winner Will Greenwood behind Rory Underwood (49) in the all-time list for England, but he was at his best between 2001-03 when his dramatic scores and swallow dives illuminated the autumn Tests against Southern Hemisphere opposition.
'If you look back on those tries you'll see I didn't really show any happiness,' he said. 'I'd score then often slam the ball down on to the ground. It was all fury.'
Top of the world: England's Jonny Wilkinson and Ben Cohen celebrate last minute drop goal in 2003 World Cup final
Cohen has missed all the team get-togethers so far - the legends game where his great friend Steve Thompson scored an outrageous try, the London reunion dinner and the Twickenham pitch parade during the Test against Australia - because of his Strictly commitments.
'I'm gutted to have missed out but I had no choice,' he said. 'I'm contracted to the show and that meant 12 hours' training on the Thursday, 12 hours' dress rehearsals on the Friday and then the day of the show, which is more like 18 hours. To be honest, I thought I would have been knocked out and could have enjoyed the reunion but, against all personal predictions, I'm still in.'
He has many warm memories of 2003. 'By the time we got to the World Cup, England had earned the right to be the best team in the world. We ticked all the boxes. We had a mobile front row, a huge second row with a captain who had an aura about him, a perfectly balanced back row, fearless half-backs and a guy in Jonny Wilkinson who habitually won matches with his boot, an intelligent midfield and a potent back three.'
Cohen had also gained a bit of a reputation for being arrogant, although only afterwards did the news seep out that his innate tinnitus meant that he was 'clinically deaf'.
'I'd walk past people and blank them when they spoke to me,' he said. 'That must have looked awful. No wonder people thought that I was arrogant. But the truth was that half the time I never heard them. I'll be honest, that's also the reason I didn't pass the ball as much as I should have. It wasn't that I was a hog. It's just that I rarely heard my team-mates shouting for the ball.'
Gripping: Cohen on Strictly Come Dancing
Cohen, who wears a hearing aid, smiles wryly and shakes his head. 'I was sitting at the back of the team room at the Manly hotel just before we got on the bus to the World Cup final. We were waiting for Clive Woodward to make his pre-final speech when I caught a headline in a local newspaper about us being "Dad's Army" and started to read the long article. When I finished I looked up and saw Clive walking out. He'd just delivered his speech and I hadn't heard a single word of it!'
Yet he remembers one, strange and almost eerie fact about the final more than he remembers Jason Robinson scoring a try or Jonny's drop-goal. 'The stadium was packed. It was the hottest ticket in world sport. And yet the seat next to Mum was empty.'
He pauses. 'We've talked a lot about that in the family ever since.'
Cohen was never quite the same player after becoming a world champion. 'I was mentally and physically exhausted,' he said. 'Some of the anger dissipated because I'd achieved my two goals and I think the stress we all felt as a result of trying and achieving to win the World Cup, coupled with the extra emotion I had fuelling me, left me shattered.
'Then it all started to go wrong at Northampton, I played out of position, then decided not to go elsewhere when I should have.
'My wife, Abi, had twins in 2007, which is why I pulled out of selection for the World Cup, and we ended up in Brive where we never settled, before then signing for Sale. I was player of the season in 2010 and had been offered a three-year contract to move to another Premiership club, but my heart wasn't in it and, instead, I had a new challenge to throw myself into.'
Gay icon: Cohen has embraced his status
That was to set up The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, dedicated to creating awareness and funds to counter bullying with a specific nod to homophobia, an idea that was mooted after Cohen became a popular gay icon despite being straight.
It was, in truth, an idea that had been brewing sub-consciously, for some time. 'Discovering my status on gay sites alerted me to the problems that gay men and women endure every day from bullying, but then I realised how much my family had been affected by bullying, too.
'My father died after standing up for others, and what I'm doing now is a direct result. When I was first approached by Strictly, my answer was No, but then I understood what it could do for StandUp and that's when I decided to give it a go.'
This is precisely what he was doing last night in Blackpool, amid the sequins and Bruce Forsyth, as dance partner Kristina Rihanoff eased him around the dance floor.
'It's just like a Test week in rugby,' he said. 'Everything is geared to the Saturday performance. And it's just as tough, maybe more. My respect for those dancers is huge.'
To those who know him as the torso-baring hunk on a popular TV show, can Ben Cohen add Strictly Come Dancing champion to his trophy cabinet that already sports a World Cup winner's medal?
He laughs heartily for the first time in our chat.
'I fear I'm on borrowed time,' he said. ‘Taking your shirt off can only take you so far.’
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