Danny Care faces Leinster in the Heineken Cup today having gone rapidly from a second-team player to an England international and potential Lions tourist. The Harlequins scrum-half could be reflecting serenely on 18 months of extraordinarily high achievement, were it not for a slip, a shove and a bit of slap and tickle. "You can't really sit back and think if you've done well or not," says Care. "By the time you've finished reviewing one game, it's on to getting ready for the next one."
This may be just as well for Quins' and England's have-a-go Yorkshireman. When Care toured with England to New Zealand last summer, a chance peep into a team-mate's room led to him giving evidence to Judge Jeff Blackett's investigation into allegations of misconduct. Care, who had just made his Test debut a year after captaining England's Under-20s, did no more than get an eyeful and he was cleared of any wrong-doing but it was a worrying time, not least for his close-knit family.
He took his total of caps to six in the autumn series – his fast breaking around the fringes and eye for a try were clearly to the liking of Martin Johnson – but the skids were put under him again when he slipped on ice just before the Six Nations' Championship.
Care missed two matches and his comeback as a substitute in Dublin lasted as long as it took him to barge Marcus Horan at a ruck, which was not long. Care's yellow card caused Johnson, the England manager, to see red but the boss was on the phone a few days later. "He just said carry on playing my normal way," Care recalls. "You have to be on the edge as a scrum-half and I'll never change."
Care, a former Sheffield Wednesday apprentice, joined Quins as reputedly the country's highest-paid rugby teenager. Now 22, and after a settling-in period as understudy to Andy Gomarsall, he has been prominent in his club's rise up the rankings.
They defeated Stade Français twice in their Heineken pool and are well placed for the Premiership play-offs. "A lot of teams underestimated us but we never doubted ourselves," Care says. "We're a really confident and close-knit group. I've never seen a coach work harder than John Kingston, he's the earliest in the training ground and the last to leave. You want to play well for him, and for Dean Richards, and most important for your mates in the team."
Richards, the director of rugby, could tell there had been a tougher than normal effort in the outstanding 19-3 defeat of Bath eight days ago when the players were all but silent on the bus home. "We made 220 tackles," says Care. "I'd single out Chris Robshaw, who made 32, which was unbelievable. That shows the determination and pride in the shirt." There may need to be more of the same against Leinster, who have the Lion king-in-waiting, Brian O'Driscoll.
Quins have a defensive system devised by Tony Diprose which can adjust on the hoof. "We've got backs with the speed to burn any team and our forwards have got the grunt and the workrate," says Care. The prize is a semi-final against Munster or Ospreys.
Nick Easter's head-to-head with the Leinster No 8, Jamie Heaslip, will intrigue Lions pundits, but Test selectors have mostly overlooked the Stoop. That in turn has helped keep Quins settled. When Richards expresses outrage that his captain and openside flanker, Will Skinner, may not be in this summer's Elite Players Squad or Saxons, perhaps Deano doth protest too much. That Skinner is a cert for the Sky Sports Premiership team of the season demonstrates what he has done for his club.
Lions selection is at the long-list stage with a load of letters – some say 60, others 70 – having gone out to potential tourists. The squad will be settled this week and announced on 21 April.
Care smiles coyly when asked if he has had a letter; maybe he has become twice shy about tempting fate. "I think in one game it is going to be hard to sway them, although if you could have a great one you never know," he says. "I'm just thinking about getting to the semi-final."