James Haskell has branded himself a trainee British & Irish Lion — but still expects a brutal challenge touring New Zealand where he joked “everyone wants to offer you out for a fight”.
Haskell hailed his late Lions call-up as the realisation of a childhood dream, but revealed conflicting emotions in joining Warren Gatland’s squad at the expense of his injured close friend Billy Vunipola.
England flanker Haskell knows all about the Kiwi rugby obsession from his Super Rugby stint with the Highlanders, spent house-sitting at former London Irish star Seilala Mapusua’s beach-front property.
Despite his Lions joy Haskell is determined to keep tunnel vision on Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final with Exeter Chiefs — Wasps’ first league final since 2008.
The 32-year-old has warned the Lions to expect Haka challenges from toddlers to pensioners — but will park all that on Saturday as one of just three Wasps still at the club some nine years on from their last Premiership title showdown.
“From a personal point of view it is a bit difficult because Billy is a really good mate of mine,” said Haskell. “He’s an unbelievable player and probably the best number eight in the world.
“I’m devastated for him and it’s a huge loss for the Lions squad as a whole because he has been playing some incredible rugby. I’m very sad to see he is not going to be involved from a fan’s point of view, because up until about 4pm on Sunday I was going to be a fan.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to go and I’m unbelievably excited. I’ve driven my missus mad because I haven’t gone too over the top because we have such a huge game this weekend. This club has waited so long to get into a Premiership final and I will give 100 percent to that.
“If I get through that everything else will take care of itself. It has been a childhood dream to be involved in the Lions that I never thought was going to happen. I had made peace that it wasn’t going to happen.
“Now I have been given that lifeline at the expense of one of the best players in the world. I’m very happy but I just want to make sure that I do well for Wasps this weekend. When I was younger I thought finals grew on trees but they don’t.
“The Lions is a complete unknown to me. I’m reduced to what I suspect is an academy-status Lion. You’ve got to go there and embrace everything that it is about.
“I’m just going to be the bloke that tries to fit in and do whatever I can for the squad. Of all the places to go New Zealand is one of the toughest. Wherever you go everyone gives you a Haka. They say they’re welcoming you but it seems everyone’s offering you out for a fight, from the kids aged five to the OAPs.
“They say they’re welcoming you but it looks like an aggressive war dance. But in all seriousness, they live and breathe their rugby, I love their passion. Everyone wants to be an All Black, it is a place where rugby is number-one priority.
“It’s going to be hugely exciting, but there’s huge pressure, intensity, scrutiny, and you’ve got to gather round together as a squad and deliver performances to be proud of really.”
Saracens number eight Vunipola will miss the Lions tour with shoulder trouble, leaving Haskell circumspect on his elevation.
“I was even speaking to Billy earlier that day. He said he was struggling with injury. Then I got a missed call from Warren and I phoned him and he said that Billy was out and would I like to come on the tour. I was like: ‘yes please sir’.”
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