James Haskell has been backed to do much more than merely make up the numbers when he joins the British & Irish Lions squad for next month’s tour of New Zealand.
Wasps and England flanker Haskell will meet up with his teammates following Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final, having been added to Warren Gatland’s touring party after Billy Vunipola’s withdrawal.
James Haskell has branded himself a trainee British and Irish Lion — but still expects a brutal challenge touring New Zealand where he joked “everyone wants to offer you out for a fight”.
Billy Vunipola is the latest in a long line of British & Irish hopefuls to see their dream dashed in the weeks between the squad announcement and departure on tour.
The 32-year-old, who feared his hopes of becoming a Lion had disappeared when he was omitted from the original 41-man squad, beamed with pride when he discussed his call-up on Monday and his positive attitude could prove invaluable on such a demanding tour.
However, former Lions No. 8 Scott Quinnell has dismissed any notion that Haskell has been included for his amiable nature alone.
“He’s a likeable man, a likeable character,” Quinnell, who will be in New Zealand as part of the Sky Sports commentary team, told ESPN.
“He’ll be good in and around the squad but ultimately it’s about playing and you look at the record that he has in the England jersey and he was fantastic on the summer tour to Australia last year.
“Unfortunately he’s picked up a few injuries this year but the battle that he’s going to have in that back row is going to be very intense. The more quality players you have, the better the battle.”
Haskell was a key member of the successful England tour of Australia last summer. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images
Haskell was an integral member of the England team that secured a series whitewash in Australia last summer — playing the first two matches out of position at openside — and another former Lion, Stuart Barnes, believes he could end up pushing for a Test jersey.
“If he finds his Australia form he’s going to be bang in contention,” Barnes said.
“There’s been a big change in James. For a large part of his career, even though he was always a pleasant guy, I thought he was a little too egotistical. It was all about ‘me’ and he was the first guy to really adapt to online.
“In the last couple of years, he’s changed and he’s really grown up. He’s a very likeable man and he’s infectious.
“In Australia he gave one of the great displays as an English openside, and he ain’t even an openside.
“What he did to the Aussie back row, the way he threw himself into that battle was tremendous, and I’m really hoping that James can get there and find it – and some players do find it – as he did in Australia.”
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