Witnessing a 'very special moment' - Hassell-Collins debut another proud milestone for London Irish

Hassell-Collins continues to be one of London Irish's brightest stars
©Pinnacle for London Irish

“I probably can’t quite describe what it meant.”

That’s Declan Danaher’s overriding emotion having seen Ollie Hassell-Collins – who he has known since a teenager – make his maiden England Test appearance against Scotland last Saturday.

“I've known Ollie since he was 15, and I've seen the highs and the lows, the tears after games - from scoring a hat trick to dropping high balls, to hours spent out on the training paddock and I think it's very special to witness a very special moment.”

Danaher – Hassell-Collins’ defence coach at his club London Irish - probably thought that he would never have that feeling of pride at the home of English rugby. He had personally come close on multiple occasions, but ultimately never appeared in the famous white shirt.

However, nowadays, he regards seeing players reach their potential as the most rewarding aspect of his job, be it having a proud Exile playing for his country or seeing the next generation make the step from academy to a Premiership Cup place. “It's a nice part of coaching that you can look back on," says Danaher. "It's not about winning and losing, it's about being part of someone's journey. Often, it's about how hard they've had to work to get there.”

Danaher (43) admits that when he first met Hassell-Collins, he was taken aback by his desire. Not in try scoring  - that has yielded him a return of 34 tries in 66 Gallagher Premiership appearances - as you may expect. Instead, he refers to the immense defensive desire he saw.

“I was taking a tackle technique drill and he was absolutely slotting ball carriers. We're not just talking a simple run-up, we're talking using feet to cut guys in half, and I instantly assumed that he was a forward. He came out, and I asked what position he played, and he said that he plays wing. I actually put him back into the drill to make sure what I was seeing was happening. He then proceeded to slot another three guys. Tackle, boom, up, reload, bang, tackle. Just cutting guys in half.”

It's not always been plain sailing for Hassell-Collins, with the previous England head coach Eddie Jones consistently overlooking him despite impressive Gallagher Premiership form for Irish for multiple seasons. That’s where Danaher felt he could advise the 23-year-old winger based on his own experience.

“The one thing I could feed into Oll when he wasn't getting picked was to firstly keep banging on the door, and probably the other thing was to ask questions - I didn't ask enough questions. Why wasn’t I in? Why wasn’t I selected? You have to do it in the right way, without being aggressive or forceful, but if you don't ask you don't know. At least then when you know, you can do something with that feedback.”

“That’s what I stressed to him. When he felt like he was knocking on the door and no one was answering, just to keep knocking.”

That’s exactly what the winger has done, and after a change of leadership, his time has come. The odd coincidence is that the call has now come from Steve Borthwick – the man who allegedly wanted the flyer to leave London Irish for Leicester Tigers in the summer in his previous role at the Premiership champions.

After 97 matches without an England starter, the duck has been broken for London Irish, and with Henry Arundell – a nominee for the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year - alongside Hassell-Collins, Tom Pearson and Ben Loader, one can’t imagine Irish going so long again without any England representation anytime soon.