Nobody who knows Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell was remotely surprised when they each scored tries for England against Argentina last weekend. Because this is a duo that does everything together. From the age of five they have been constants in one another’s lives. They played junior rugby at Penzance and Newlyn, they went to the same secondary school, then progressed together to sixth form at Truro and Penwith College. There, they were both picked up by the Exeter academy and went on to sign for the club. Now they are playing alongside each other for England in the World Cup. Here’s how much Cowan-Dickie and Nowell stick together: they even live next door to each other in Exeter.
“If you look at any team photo they are in across the years they are always next to each other,” says Nick Brooks, the coach who first nurtured their talent. “It’s uncanny the bond the pair of them have. Which is odd when you meet them individually because they are not alike at all. Jack is an extrovert, Luke is very rough and ready. But together they are some force.”
Brooks first met them as six-year-olds. A former fly-half at the Penzance and Newlyn club, he had taken his son Ben down to a beginners’ session at the club’s training ground. The coach in charge addressed the parents afterwards and explained he was just a stand-in, there was no one to take the group. If they wanted rugby for their sons, he added, someone would need to step forward. Brooks was not examining his shoes carefully enough as the man spoke and found himself volunteered.
And what a group he encountered. Particularly the two lads who lived but a mile apart and were already forming the tightest of friendships.
“I knew from the first session I took there was something special about these lads,” he recalls. “Though my ambition was to get them to play for the Penzance first XV. It never for one moment occurred to me that they would end up scoring for England in a World Cup.”
In Penzance, rugby rules. Indeed for many in Cornwall the game is an obsession; the Rugby Football Union always relishes it when Cornwall reach the County Championship final because dozens of buses ferry supporters along the five-hour trip up to Twickenham, where they set the tills ringing in the stadium bars. And the two young recruits to the Penzance juniors relished the opportunity to play.
When Brooks left work as an architectural technician on Friday evening and headed down to weekly training, the twosome were always there to meet him. “They couldn’t get enough,” he remembers. “Physically, Luke was immense. But he was quick too. I played him as No 8. He was outstanding. As soon as the opposition saw he was playing, they were demoralised.”
Nowell, meanwhile, was a natural sportsman, quick, lithe, good at anything and everything.
“At school, my son Ben and all his mates wanted to be in Jack’s team whatever the sport was: football, hockey, swimming,” he says. “But even when they were 15 I wouldn’t have said he was the most talented lad in our team. What he and Luke had above all else was a desire. I’ve never known anyone as desperate to win as those two.”
It was a desire which helped the Penzance junior side hoover up trophies locally. With Cowan-Dickie powering through the scrum, Nowell flying down the flanks, when they were available the team were unstoppable. And the good news for the coach was they were always available. These were two youngsters who lived for rugby.
“Luke was a very strong lad, who had difficulties in school. On the rugby pitch he could release his emotions skilfully and legally. Rugby was his way of expressing himself. And Jack just loved winning.” Even so, he was still not considered to be the best in the area. When Cowan-Dickie was picked for Cornwall Under-16s, Nowell missed out.
“To this day you’ll meet lads who’ll tell you their proudest achievement is they were picked for Cornwall Under-16 ahead of Jack Nowell,” says Brooks. “But the thing is, he learned from that disappointment and really kicked on from there.”
Brooks admits what propelled the pair to the top was when they enrolled at Truro College after leaving secondary school at 16. Here they came under the college’s rugby programme, which drew in talent from as far away as Devon. The better players there pushed them to excel. And there were some real prospects amongst their contemporaries: the pair played in the college first XV with their England team-mate Henry Slade. Truro, Brooks says, changed the pair’s outlook.
“If you’d have asked me who was my best player in our junior team, I’d have said Kyle Moyle, who now plays on the wing for Cornish Pirates,” he reckons. “But when he was 16 he became an apprentice for his dad’s roofing firm. Jack and Luke went to Truro College and their game went up to another level. When they turned out for us in those days, you could see how they had progressed by playing with and against the best. That’s really when I first thought: these guys could make it to the top.”
It was while at Truro College that they were signed up by the Exeter academy, making the 200 mile round trip up from Penzance for every training session. But, even as they advanced to Exeter’s first team and England duty, their connection with their first club – and their first coach – remained strong.
“I lost my wife to cancer 14 years ago, when I was coaching them,” Brooks says. “Back in June, I got remarried. And both of them came to the wedding. That was lovely. And my son Ben is still big mates with them. He’s in Japan now, watching the boys he grew up with play for England.”
And down at Penzance rugby club, the next generation are starting the process that took the two local lads to the top.
“There’s not a kid in Cornwall who doesn’t want to be the next Luke Cowan-Dickie or Jack Nowell,” says Brooks. “Watching them score for England last weekend was a proud moment for the whole county. I can tell you this, I wouldn’t have been alone having a lump in my throat when they went over the line.”