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New boy Cole ready to raise his game against the Azzurri

Prop could not get in Leicester team last year but on Sunday makes his England debut. Chris Hewett reports on a remarkable rise

This time last year, Dan Cole did not know whether he was coming or going. Some weekends, he could be seen twiddling his sausage-sized thumbs on the Leicester bench, hoping that one the many props ranked above him would break a fingernail or snap an eyelash before close of play.

At other times he was farmed out to Nottingham, a Second Division side happy to find a place for surplus Welford Roaders in need of meaningful exercise. Even if he could not say where he was heading then, he has certainly arrived now.

Having made his England debut off the bench against Wales last week, the 22-year-old tight-head prop will make a first international start against the hard-scrummaging Italians in Rome on Sunday. His direct opponent is likely to be the formidable Salvatore Perugini, who plays his club rugby in Toulouse. On the other side of the front row he expects to find Martin Castrogiovanni the wild-haired exile from the Argentine pampas. Outside the Test environment, Castrogiovanni earns his corn at ... Leicester.

Cole's recent progress has been such that Leicester are now not sure who they regard as their senior tight-head operator. Castrogiovanni has 63 caps to his name but on current form, the younger man has it over him. Then there is Julian White, the old-style front-row enforcer who would snap a man's ribs as soon as look at him. If recent selection is anything to go by, Cole has it over him, too.

"Leicester is such a good place to learn," said the newcomer who was born in the city, attended local schools and did his share of front-row stir in the Tigers' academy. "Graham Rowntree and Richard Cockerill have been big influences on me, and competing against Martin and Julian gives you a sense of ambition which forces you up to a higher level of performance."

According to Rowntree, who was playing first-team rugby at Leicester when Cole was an apprentice and now works closely with him as England's scrum coach, the youngster has "something about him", albeit in a quiet way. "There's not much of the bravado thing with Dan," he said, "although I'm sure he'll be there in line if things kick off at the weekend. Is he too young? My answer to that is simple: he's a player in form. As a prop, you're either doing it or you're not doing it. Dan is doing it. Like David Wilson [the other tight-head specialist in the party], he's an inexperienced player at this level and it won't be easy going for either of them as they learn what international rugby is about. But we have two props full of potential here and that's good for us. There aren't many around."

There is no Union heritage in the Cole family. Asked about his background he mentioned his "mum's genes" – not especially complimentary given the particular demands of his role on a rugby field – and his grandfather, a Cumbrian miner who "may or may not have played a bit of rugby league". He was happier talking about the big-match performances over the last two months that earned him promotion from the Saxons squad and propelled him into the selectors' thinking for this important arm-wrestle with the Azzurri.

"A lot has been said about Leicester's scrummaging against Wasps last month," he commented, "but that wasn't a one-off. We'd been performing well leading into the game, but this was the one on national television." To the front-row cognoscenti, the big leap forward was his contribution off the bench against Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. "That really was a pressure game," he agreed. "I felt I needed to prove myself that day." And he did. As Rowntree put it: "Dan's display was as good as we could have hoped to see." Something similar on Sunday will put the latest in a long line of Leicester hard-heads firmly in contention for next year's World Cup.