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- Rugby player
“It’s been a crazy six months,” admits Nic Dolly, who became the 1,442nd man to represent England in a Test match as South Africa were beaten at Twickenham two weeks ago.
“It’s been a crazy five years, really, since I moved here. If you look where I’ve come from, it’s truly a blessing, to be honest. I couldn’t write it for you.”
It is worth attempting to tell the tale, because Dolly’s story is a rich one of perseverance and seizing opportunity. His path to a cap, which started with a Christmas trip from Australia to visit his grandparents in Manchester, has been more curious than most of the 1,441 England internationals that preceded him. If you are sitting comfortably, then, we will begin.
“We just wanted to come over as a family – my sisters, my brother, my mum – for Christmas and New Year,” Dolly says. “I told my granddad that I’d be going into pre-season for my club in Sydney and that I wanted to keep my fitness up so I wouldn’t be blowing.
“I asked if he could sort something out and he had a few connections that he spoke to. Emails flew about, which landed me at Sale.”
Tony Palin, Dolly’s “rugby-mad” and “chatty” grandfather, leant on his local contacts. Dolly began training with Sale Sharks academy and impressed enough to earn a five-year contract as well as a spot in England age-grade sides. Marcus Smith was an under-20 team-mate.
First-team action was difficult to come by for the combative hooker, though. Following loan spells at Sale FC, Rotherham and Jersey, Dolly was released as the pandemic took hold.
The experience, Dolly explains “opened my eyes to how much of a cut-throat environment rugby is”. A tricky situation turned out well. He was signed by Coventry and founded a personal training business, Build U Fitness, during the delay ahead of the 2020-21 Championship season. Dolly did not represent the West Midlands club until February 2021. Spotting potential and a tenacious attitude, Steve Borthwick swooped after just three appearances and brought Dolly to Leicester Tigers.
“Setbacks are going to happen,” says the 22-year-old. “They’re inevitable. It’s about how you bounce back from them. After getting released from Sale, I always saw myself getting back into the Premiership, wherever that was going to be. Luckily it came sooner rather than later.”
Born in Sydney, Dolly’s progression through Australia’s junior scene had stalled. His father, Michael, was told by New South Wales selectors that work-rate was lacking. How ironic that seems now. Dolly’s habit of taking chances continued with Tigers.
At the beginning of the current campaign, Leicester were worryingly thin on hookers with Tom Youngs, Julián Montoya and Charlie Clare all unavailable. They needed Dolly to step up. He did so, with little fuss and remarkable success. Four consecutive starts yielded four tries, his accurate throwing feeding an effective driving maul as Tigers strung together consecutive wins.
Borthwick, arguably the most exacting lineout technician on the planet, was so reliant on his recruit that Dolly did not come off before the 74th minute in each of those first three matches against Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester and Saracens. Eddie Jones must have admired that – and perhaps even recognised a kindred spirit.
“He would say himself that he was a small hooker,” Dolly says of the England head coach. “I guess, for the size of everyone now, I am quite a small hooker. For me it is about throwing myself about, getting stuck in and being as aggressive as I can.”
Although he was not picked for England’s September training camp, Dolly was among three hookers to travel to Jersey to prepare for the autumn Tests. When Jamie George replaced the injured Luke Cowan-Dickie, he stayed as third choice. Then George went down on the verge of South Africa’s visit to Twickenham.
Jones called up Jack Singleton, but selected Dolly on the bench behind Jamie Blamire. He was thrust into the action on the hour-mark, just as the Springboks were exerting control, and fed the lineout from which Raffi Quirke scored.
Things did not go entirely to plan for Dolly, with Eben Etzebeth nabbing two throws. However, he persevered and England came through to oust the world champions.
“I don’t think I’d want to have it any other way,” Dolly says of a fiery baptism. “You want to play the best teams and they’re the best team – that’s a fact. It was just awesome to be able to feel like I contributed towards a win.”
His mother, Sharon, through whom he qualifies for England, was in the crowd although Dolly’s grandparents could not make it down from Manchester and his brother, Alex, a scrum-half who also stayed in England and embarked on a career after that fateful Christmas trip, was playing for Doncaster.
Another reminder of his extraordinary route arrived in the changing room afterwards as Tom Curry, a friend and contemporary at Sale Sharks, presented his cap.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 25, 2021
“It was really special,” Dolly says. “I couldn’t really have asked for anyone else to present it for me. He has seen my journey. He is a close mate of mine and he knows how much I have had to put in to get where I am.”
Naturally, Dolly does not see last month’s exploits as a final destination. Leicester face Harlequins on Sunday and will be eager to extend their six-point cushion at the top of the table with a ninth straight victory. The Six Nations will roll around soon enough, and a brief England introduction has whetted the appetite.
“If anything, it’s made me a bit hungrier,” Dolly says. “You get a taste of it and you want to come back and prove yourself. You don’t want to be that person who just plays one cap.”
The “crazy” last five years have proved that Dolly is immensely resourceful and determined. Doubting him would not be wise.