James Haskell would not be the first England back-row forward to indulge a taste for sporting self-flagellation by playing his club rugby the hard way down in Wales: John Scott, a Grand Slam-winning No 8 back in the Bill Beaumont era, spent the lion's share of his career risking life, limb and reputation on behalf of Cardiff. But if the supremely self-confident Wasps flanker finally rejects the new deal offered him weeks ago and decides to try his luck with Swansea-based Ospreys instead, there may be serious ramifications for Martin Johnson and the rest of the red rose coaching team.
Haskell, out of contract at the end of the season and apparently out of love with those in the Wasps management who are unwilling to pay him what he considers to be the going rate for his services, was first linked with the most lavishly-resourced of the four Welsh professional regions at the weekend. Another slice of agent-speak? It seems not. Yesterday, Ospreys publicly announced that the 23-year-old player had indeed been in touch, in person.
"He has been down to have a look at our facilities and to see what Ospreys are all about," confirmed Andrew Hore, the club's elite performance director, who was clearly prepared to say more about a potential new forward than about a potential new head coach, despite his talks with the Scott Johnson, the Australian currently working in the United States. "We received an approach from his representative and while we have not actively been seeking a move for James, we were pleased to meet with him. For a current England international to be showing such an interest is a clear sign of our growing status in the game."
If a move down the M4 holds obvious temptations for Haskell – high wages, guaranteed Heineken Cup rugby, the chance to strut his stuff in a rock-star team featuring the likes of Shane Williams, Gavin Henson, James Hook and Ryan Jones – it is rather less attractive as far as Johnson is concerned. One of the England manager's key 2011 World Cup personnel would not be subject to the beneficial terms put in place for international players under the recently-activated agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs.
Rest periods, injury assessment and training access would be the business of the Ospreys' hierarchy, not the red rose version. All this is in the future, though. Today, Johnson has a revamped 32-man elite squad on his mind – a squad that will take England through a perilous Six Nations Championship, with its unforgiving trips to Cardiff and Dublin, and the two-Test entanglement with Argentina in June. The manager does not have a free hand; indeed, he can make only five form-driven changes to the party he pieced together as long ago as last July. Nevertheless, there were bits and pieces of good news for him yesterday.
Gloucester reported that Olly Morgan, the form full-back in the country in recent weeks, might be fit for this weekend's big Heineken Cup rumble with Cardiff Blues, despite concerns over a finger injury last weekend. He underwent surgery on Sunday, but initial fears of tendon damage proved unfounded. He will certainly be ready in time for England's opening Six Nations match with Italy on 7 February. With Mark Cueto expected to return to the squad after a long spell in the doldrums – the Sale wing deserves great credit for his resilience in the face of injury and loss of form – places in the back three will be at a premium. Johnson must decide whether to stick with James Simpson-Daniel, of Gloucester, who has not pulled on a pair of boots in anger since suffering the latest in a long line of orthopaedic calamities before the opening of the last international window in November. He also has a decision to make over Mathew Tait, whose attacking talents would be of more benefit at outside centre, than at full-back or among the replacements.
Amid the talk of candidates for the Six Nations squad – Mike Tindall, of Gloucester, and Ben Foden, of Northampton, are among the more obvious challengers – there was some concrete news on the promotion front. Paul Hull, a senior member of Bristol's back-room staff, was appointed assistant coach of the Saxons ahead of next month's fixtures against Portugal and Ireland A.Reuse content