‘You realise how special it is’: Dan Cole revels in Leicester’s European revival

<span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

The Leicester prop Dan Cole says the club’s failure to qualify for the Champions Cup in recent seasons has made him realise how special the competition is. The Tigers welcome Edinburgh to Welford Road on Friday night in the last 16 of Europe’s biggest knockout tournament, with a quarter-final against Leinster or Ulster the prize for the victors.

Leicester have been accustomed to playing in the top-tier European competition, but entered the Challenge Cup in 2019-20 and 2020-21, losing to Montpellier in the Twickenham final in the latter campaign. Leinster eliminated Leicester at the quarter-final stage last season, but qualification for this season’s Champions Cup was emphatically secured by winning the Premiership title last May.

Related: Mike Brown feared career was over before signing Leicester contract

Having recently reached 100 England caps, the 35-year-old Cole is one of the linchpins of a squad that has a chance of emulating Leicester’s legendary side, led by Martin Johnson, that claimed the Heineken Cup in 2001 and 2002.

“It means a lot,” Cole said. “The fact we didn’t qualify for a couple of years … Leicester had qualified for so many years, and been competitive and successful. To then say: ‘You don’t qualify.’ You realise how special the competition is.

Champions Cup

Leicester v Edinburgh Fri 8pm
Sharks v Munster Sat 12.30pm
Stormers v Harlequins Sat 3pm
Leinster v Ulster Sat 5.30pm
La Rochelle v Gloucester Sat 5.30pm
Exeter v Montpellier Sun 12.30pm
Toulouse v Bulls Sun 3pm
Saracens v Ospreys Sun 3pm

Challenge Cup

Bristol v Clermont Fri 8pm
Scarlets v Brive Fri 8pm
Toulon v Cheetahs Sat 12.30pm
Stade Français v Lyon Sat 3pm
Benetton v Connacht Sat 3pm
Glasgow v Dragons Sat 5.30pm
Lions v Racing 92 Sat 5.30pm
Cardiff v Sale Sat 8pm

All ties over a single leg; times BST.

“Bringing a big European team to Leicester, or going away somewhere like that, you realise how big it is, what it means to the club … The big games against international opposition – Edinburgh are pretty much a Scotland side – they’re a fantastic team. It’s one of those games you want to be involved in.”

After playing all five of England’s Six Nations matches, Cole admits he did not expect to play international rugby again having been dropped after the last World Cup. But the front-rower credits the culture fostered by Steve Borthwick, and the collective drive for daily improvement, as the reason he is an England player again.

“I was fortunate enough that here at Leicester [post-2019 World Cup], Steve was coming in, and we had a big rebuilding project and something you can throw yourself into entirely. I was very fortunate we had a very good team here. You turn up every day, you’re challenged by people and you want to play. I think that’s allowed me to get back in the England setup.”

Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe attempts to get past Italy’s Pierre Bruno in the Six Nations.
Leicester will need to find a way to stop Edinburgh and Scotland winger Duhan van der Merwe in their Champions Cup clash. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

The Edinburgh head coach, Mike Blair, welcomes a host of Scotland internationals back into his squad for the trip to Leicester, with Duhan van der Merwe, Pierre Schoeman, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson in the mix. Leicester are on a five-match winning sequence in the Premiership while Edinburgh are 14th out of 16 in the United Rugby Championship, having had 10 players on Six Nations duty with Scotland.

Leinster host Ulster at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening with Toulouse, Munster and the South African sides Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks also on Leicester’s side of the draw. Toulouse host the Bulls in south-west France on Sunday while Munster travel to Kings Park in Durban to face the Sharks on Saturday.

Aside from Leicester there are four other Premiership sides in the hat, all on the opposite side of the draw: La Rochelle v Gloucester, Saracens v Ospreys, Exeter v Montpellier and Stormers v Harlequins are the corresponding fixtures.

Steve Borthwick has added former Ireland full-back Felix Jones to his England coaching team in an appointment that begins in 2024.

Jones will end his role as assistant to South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus after the holders' World Cup defence this autumn.

The 35-year-old started coaching the Springboks' defence in 2019 but is also responsible for liaising with their European-based players. It has yet to be revealed what his England duties will be.

"Our immediate focus is on preparation for the World Cup," Borthwick said. "We are continuing to build our programme to be in a position to compete to be world champions once again.

"At the same time, I also want to ensure we are preparing for long-term success for this England team and I'm excited that a coach as talented as Felix is joining next year.

"Felix has been competing at the top of world rugby during his four years with South Africa and will bring invaluable experience to our set up.

Jones is the second member of South Africa's 2019 World Cup-winning management team recruited by Borthwick, with Aled Walters set to join from Leicester as head of strength and conditioning at the end of the season.

Sinfield and Wigglesworth are currently Borthwick's only confirmed assistants for the global showpiece in France, but a forwards coach and additional specialist coaches are also being sought. PA Media

After his significant recent milestone in Dublin, when Cole became the fourth Englishman to win a century of caps along with Ben Youngs, Jason Leonard and Owen Farrell, he was asked about his earliest rugby experiences at South Leicester RFC. “I did my first training session in jeans, because I just turned up to check it out,” Cole said. “I played my youth rugby there, and it was brilliant. I just enjoyed the game.

“It was a lot different, coming from football. You’d turn up in a shirt and tie, and afterwards everyone would go in the clubhouse and have a drink. We’d have sausage, chips and a pint of Coke, and it was just a good thing. Really enjoyed it, still do. Rugby is not for everyone but it stuck with me.”

Asked about any longer-term targets – including this year’s Rugby World Cup in France – Cole would not be drawn. “I’m looking forward to Friday night,” he said. “It’s a massive challenge: a European game on a Friday night, knockout rugby. You can’t look past that.”