Exclusive: ‘I don’t think I was expecting to start’ – Nic Dolly ahead of return for Barbarians

Nic Dolly during his brief spell with Coventry RUFC in the Championship
©Nick Meredith

Since Nic Dolly suffered his gruesome knee injury against Newcastle Falcons in the Gallagher Premiership over a year ago, much has happened in the hookers’ absence.

He watched on from the side-lines as his Leicester Tigers teammates lifted domestic silverware, the coach who handed him his England debut was dismissed and all his club coaches gradually filtered through to take the reins of the national team.

All the while Dolly was working his hardest to get back out onto the field, which he succeeded in by playing in two exhibition games against Northampton Saints, although senior appearances were somewhat harder to come by.

In the cut and thrust of trying to retain the Premiership, Dolly was not used by interim head coach Richard Wigglesworth, who stuck to the combination of Julian Montoya as starter and Charlie Clare off the bench in the aims of taking the East Midlanders to the capital once again.

Coming unstuck against Sale Sharks, there would be no game for Tigers this week and freeing up Dolly to go to London by himself and play for the Barbarians. 

Selected by that same coach that handed him his debut, Eddie Jones, it is an opportunity for Dolly to be on the big stage again.

“From the Leicester point of view, it comes off the back of a loss which is quite sad,” Dolly said. “It would have been great to go on and win it. It has been very different to last season.

“Individually, selfishly, I don’t know how many people can say they’ve done it [played for the Barbarians]. 

“So, to get the opportunity to run out on Sunday and play again, just to play well and play at a high level against high-quality players, that’s what it is all about.”

When speaking to Dolly, it is hard not to be staggered with how the 23-year-old dealt with the hand he had been dealt. 

At the start, he is open in saying it was a difficult period as his side were led to Premiership glory by Steve Borthwick.

When Dolly goes back to Tigers in order to prepare for the 2023/24 season, it will be all change at the club. Borthwick, Wigglesworth, Kevin Sinfield, Tom Harrison and Aled Walters have all left to take charge of England after the RFU’s decision to let go of Jones less than a year away from the Rugby World Cup in France.

It is a decision which caused much debate, notwithstanding the governing body’s pursuit of Leicester’s coaching staff. 

Ultimately getting their men, it means that Dan McKellar will be the club’s new head coach.

“It is definitely a strange thing,” Dolly said. “It took a lot to get used to; that this coaching group that had worked together and worked so well for us weren’t going to be here. There is some big characters and quality coaches leaving.

“I think now, going forward, it is just exciting to be honest, to see what we can do with a new group of coaches, new energy and maybe a new outlook on the way we play or the way we see the game.

After a string of impressive Leicester Tigers performances, Nic Dolly was called into England camp by Eddie Jones
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

“It is one of those things. You can dwell on it and be like ‘we are not going to have the same coaches’ but look at it as the positive of ‘this is an exciting opportunity’. Everyone has got a clean slate and come day one it is all guns blazing.”

Dolly’s slate is perhaps even cleaner than most. Having not played a blood and thunder game of rugby since that day at Kingston Park, it will almost be like the 23-year-old is a new player at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

That is not to forget the fantastic work that the hooker did prior to injury. Picked up by Tigers from Coventry, Dolly was an instant hit with Borthwick, took a starting slot and was often seen practicing his throwing with his head coach in the build-up to games.

Their bond and belief paid in dividends as Leicester launched one of the most effective set-pieces in recent memory, Dolly often the beneficiary at the tail of a driving maul. 

Such was the combination, Dolly was called into England camp by Eddie Jones, ultimately winning his first cap off the bench against South Africa at Twickenham.

Always highly touted in England after arriving on the country’s shores to visit his grandparents in Greater Manchester. 

Signed by Sale Sharks and then called into England U20s, Dolly’s career was derailed for a time when released during the pandemic, although a brief spell at Coventry put things back on track.

You can quickly understand what Jones likes about the 23-year-old. Both come from Sydney, are tenacious competitors and clearly share a bond, the only wedge between the two being their club sides back home, with Dolly hailing from Eastwood and Jones from Randwick.

Now starting for his former England coach against Steve Hansen’s World XV in what promises to be a truly mouth-watering clash, it is an opportunity for Dolly to really take things by the scruff of the neck and remind people of exactly what he is about.

“I have got a really good relationship with Eddie,” Dolly said. “Ever since he first called me up for my first couple of camps, to giving me my first cap, I am definitely grateful for what he has done for me and the opportunities he gave me.

“I am sure at the time people were saying ‘he has only played 10 or so games in the Prem’ and I was on the bench against one of the best teams in the world in South Africa. All I can say to Eddie is thank you and on Sunday I would like to repay that favour.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think I was expecting to start. I haven’t played in 12 months. I found out this morning, straight away I was super excited, to just go out on a big stage and playing against some of the best players in the world.”

What comes after this weekend is fairly clearcut too. First and foremost is a return to Leicester and pre-season, new management will bring a new challenge and direction to all involved in the squad.

Having already come such hurdles in his young career, Dolly is keen to put himself back amongst the best in the world today. Starting at Twickenham is something he has never done, his sole England cap to date coming off the bench that 27-26 win over the Springboks.

It is that platform which he has craved all along, that feeling growing and growing while not being picked for his club side at the weekends and his ambition of returning to the fore with Tigers, and England, not wavering.

“Some people say they would die for one cap, and they would be happy with that,” Dolly said. “It is one of those ones where you get one [cap] and then you want more.

“You sort of see all the boys, especially as we have got a young group with Leicester with 10, 11, 12 caps, and you are kind of envious of them, whereas you have got only one.

“It is quite funny, there is people that haven’t got a cap and would do anything to have your cap. 

“I want to play as many internationals as I possibly can and I understand that is going to take a lot of hard work and I have got to re-establish myself, but that is something I am willing to do and put everything in that basket.”