There are some who believe Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, will be taking an almighty gamble – and, indeed, an unnecessary one – if he decides to leave his most destructive attacking runner, Manu Tuilagi, on the bench for this weekend's Six Nations free-for-all with Ireland in Dublin. Yet whatever the shape of the red-rose midfield, there will be one man in the squad who has played for higher stakes.
James Haskell, the loquacious Wasps flanker who is expected to return to the starting back row on Sunday, openly admits that he "looked down the barrel of not playing for England again" when he set sail on his rugby travels after the 2011 World Cup. He had already chanced his arm by joining the Parisian club Stade Français two years previously. When he then took up an invitation to swan around the low-key Japanese league before joining the Dunedin-based Highlanders for a more demanding spot of Super 15 activity, his prospects of endearing himself to a new national hierarchy were by no means secure.
"It was definitely a gamble," he said. "I'm not going to sit here like the bloke in The A-Team and say, 'I love it when a plan comes together', because that wasn't the case at all. I had no idea what was going to happen. I had no clue as to whether I would be given an opportunity to come back into the England side. I knew that if I went away I would be more enriched as a person – that I would probably grow up a little and come back a better player because of it. What I didn't know was whether I'd get another chance."
The chance came in South Africa last summer. Tom Wood, the tough Northampton forward, was injured, as was Tom Croft of Leicester. A third "Tom" in the back-row shake-up, Johnson of Exeter, was fit and capable, but profoundly inexperienced. So too was the new No 8, Ben Morgan of Gloucester. As Haskell had played across the back row during an international career that began in 2007, and was in good condition thanks to his efforts in the southern hemisphere, he was drafted into the tour squad and met up with Lancaster and company in Durban.
"I'd seen that some guys were no longer involved," he said, referring to those of his countrymen jettisoned by Lancaster in the bloody aftermath of the failed World Cup campaign in 2011. "I recognised they were bringing in young players and trying to create something new. But I also knew that if I was given the chance to work in the environment – that if Stuart got to know me, saw I was passionate about England and that I'd keep fighting to be involved because it meant so much to me – he might give me a shot."
That shot came in the drawn final Test against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth, where Haskell fought a battle royal with the South African back-rowers and was at the heart of a deeply resourceful team performance. He also played his part against Scotland last weekend, when he came off the bench for the stricken Morgan and delivered a strikingly good set of statistics: 10 tackles and four turnovers in a little over half an hour.
"Running out at Twickenham last week was just as exciting as it ever was, even though I wasn't down to start," he said. "I feel refreshed; I feel very eager to stay in this environment for as long as I can. There is so much respect for the shirt. Everyone knows the shirt on its own is just a bit of cloth, but when you fill it, you do so with physicality, emotion and passion. It can be taken away from you at any moment, so your performances have to do the talking."
With Morgan still struggling with the ankle injury suffered against the Scots, the gaping hole at No 8 is likely to be filled by Wood, with Haskell slipping into place on the short side of the scrum. Elsewhere, the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs is widely thought to have seen off the serious threat of Dylan Hartley, the Northampton forward who led England in Port Elizabeth eight months ago.
Tuilagi, who has not played since mid-December, is rumoured to have failed to answer questions over his match fitness to the complete satisfaction of Lancaster and his fellow coaches. If this proves to be the case, Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt will continue at centre.
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