On the day England announced their squad to prepare for the Six Nations, James Haskell was getting up to speed, honing his sprinting exercises with Margot Wells. However, once he hit the M25 he turned from greyhound to tortoise. "It's the story of my life," he said, not that he was complaining. "If I was a footballer I'd have been in a helicopter."
Haskell is a young man in a hurry and his inclusion in the elite 32 seemed inevitable, particularly as his Wasps team-mate Lawrence Dallaglio retired from international rugby and Martin Corry followed suit. Nor could Brian Ashton, England's head coach, consider Dan Ward-Smith, who is recovering from another injury. With Ashton, though, nothing can be taken for granted. You only have to look at the selection of the Premiership novice Lesley Vainikolo.
Haskell – who five seasons ago was playing for Maidenhead Colts – made his senior debut last year against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, and though England lost 27-18 he enjoyed it. "I'll never forget that when the national anthems were being played I couldn't stop smiling to myself. I felt comfortable." There were problems in the back row that day. Nick Easter withdrew with a neck injury and Joe Worsley, who came in at No 8, was concussed after nine minutes.
Haskell seemed to have made a name for himself but last August, when push came to shove for the World Cup squad, he didn't make it. "I'd played against France in a warm-up game at Twickenham and thought I'd showed what I could do. I didn't feel full of confidence. Somebody would say one thing and another person something else."
Next day Haskell was having Sunday lunch in a pub when a phone call from Ashton ruined his appetite. "Basically the message was that he needed guys with more experience. I was bitterly disappointed but I wasn'tmortally wounded. It wasn't as if I was in Simon Shaw's shoes. He was the best player in his pos-ition and was often overlooked."
Haskell also took a call from Dallaglio. "He told me he couldn't believe I'd been left out." Dallaglio, of course, made the cut, but in the World Cup he was sidelined by Easter. "Having taken 'Lol' to France I thought England would have played him," Haskell said, "but perhaps I'm biased. Nick did extremely well. He is very strong in certain areas of the game. He always makes yards and he looks after the ball."
Haskell is one of eight Wasps in the squad, and it reflects well on Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards, Wasps' director of rugby and coach respectively. If Edwards joins Wales's coaching team, would his knowledge of them all leave him prone to insider trading? "If you cut Shaun he'd bleed black and yellow," Haskell said. "You wouldn't want to stop him furthering his career as long as he doesn't give Wales all our secrets." And how many of the eight will take the field against Wales on 2 February? "I don't know how coaches' minds work. I've got enough work worrying about myself. There are massive challenges ahead."
After recovering from an ankle injury, he lines up in Wasps' back row against Llanelli at Adams Park today as the club continue their defence of the Heineken Cup. "We have our own mini battles at Wasps, where the competition is intense. It's lovely being recognised again by England, a great honour, but there's many a slip twixt cup and lip."
Haskell says that, if required, he could play Nos 6, 7 or 8 but that he is at his most comfortable on the blindside flank: "I don't want to become the Austin Healey of the back-row world."
There are five other back-rowers in the elite squad – Easter,Worsley, Tom Rees, Lewis Moody and the latest sensation on the block, Tom Croft of Leicester, who, like Haskell, is 22. Ashton said that Croft could become "quite a special package". Little wonder that Corry has decided the time is right to leave the international arena.
So, is Ashton, who was ultra-conservative in his World Cup squad, ringing in the new in place of the old? To a degree. There are only four uncapped players in the 32: Croft, the Sale scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, the 20-year-old Wasps stand-off Danny Cipriani and, in the jaw-dropping category, Gloucester's wing Vainikolo, who displaced Josh Lewsey. Another casualty is the in-form Olly Barkley, whose only "crime" is that he appears in court next month accused of assault, a charge he denies.
If Ashton sounded impressed with Croft he was almost doing cartwheels over Vainikolo. "He's powerful, quick and explosive. He has good footwork and a footballing brain and he's a try-scorer who poses threats all over the field." Having virtually gone through the alphabet, Ashton added that the player who is known as "The Volcano" had something else, "the X-factor".
Vainikolo, who was born not in Krakatoa but in Tonga and brought up in Auckland, played rugby league for New Zealand and the Bradford Bulls before joining Gloucester this season, for whom he scored five tries on his Premiership debut. Although he does not hold a British passport, he qualifies for England on residential grounds.
When Andy Farrell made the switch from league to union he was also hailed as the greatest thing since sliced Hovis. Well, he didn't cut the mustard at Test level and is now back on the shelf.
England squad: Backs: Iain Balshaw (Gloucester), Daniel Cipriani (Wasps), Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks), Toby Flood (Newcastle), Andy Gomarsall (Harlequins), Charlie Hodgson (Sale Sharks), Jamie Noon (Newcastle), Peter Richards (London Irish), Paul Sackey (Wasps), David Strettle (Harlequins), Mathew Tait (Newcastle), Mike Tindall (Gloucester), Richard Wigglesworth (Sale), Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle), Lesley Vainikolo (Gloucester). Forwards: Steve Borthwick (Bath), Tom Croft (Leicester), George Chuter (Leicester), Louis Deacon (Leicester), Nick Easter (Harlequins), James Haskell (Wasps), Ben Kay (Leicester), Lee Mears (Bath), Lewis Moody (Leicester), Tim Payne (Wasps), Tom Rees (Wasps), Mark Regan (Bristol), Simon Shaw (Wasps), Andrew Sheridan (Sale), Matt Stevens (Bath), Phil Vickery (Wasps, capt), Joe Worsley (Wasps).Reuse content