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Declan Danaher explains raw emotions of Ollie Hassell-Collins' hug

By Liam Heagney
Declan Danaher embraces Ollie Hassell-Collins post-game last Saturday (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

If there was a post-game picture to tug at the heartstrings last Saturday from an England perspective, the sight of Declan Danaher embracing new Test cap Ollie Hassell-Collins was it. Tears appeared to be welling up in the eyes of the London Irish assistant coach when he hugged the 24-year-old at Twickenham – and it wasn’t because England had just been beaten by Scotland in the opening round Guinness Six Nations match.

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Instead, Danaher was all emotional about the achievement of a youngster whom he treats like his own son finally getting to make his first England appearance after a very patient wait. Eddie Jones has regularly included Hassell-Collins in his squads during the latter part of his tenure, but those selections never resulted in a first cap.

That finally changed, though, last weekend when Hassell-Collins was handed his debut by new England head coach Steve Borthwick.

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England fans slam atmosphere at Twickenham after loss to Scotland | Six Nations 2023

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England fans slam atmosphere at Twickenham after loss to Scotland | Six Nations 2023

After the initial final whistle disappointment of losing to the Scots had diluted, the Reading-born winger – who flamboyantly played with his fingernails painted in England colours – shared a moment with the people that mattered most in getting him onto the international stage. Namely his family and friends, but also club coach Danaher who had been fighting his corner for many years.

Asked what exactly was going on when he looked at Hassell-Collins as if was about to cry, Danaher told RugbyPass: “The best way I’d describe it, actually probably my daughter could describe it – I have got a couple of kids and they reckon he is my favourite out of the three of them, so that is probably the best way.

Hassell-Collins England debut
New England winger Ollie Hassell-Collins with family and friends last Saturday (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

“Look, I have known Ollie since he was 15. For me, I have seen the highs and the lows, the tears after games, the scoring a hat-trick to not scoring for a couple of weeks to dropping high balls to hours spent out on the training paddock. For me, yeah, it was just a very, very special moment to be there and be a part of that because that was something that we had spoken about, that we have been there on this journey and it [getting capped] was going to happen.

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“It was never going to be easy. It was always going to be hard and you are going to have to take the feedback on board. You obviously need a bit of luck as well. That always helps and so yeah, it was just a massive [Danaher now pauses]… I probably can’t describe what it meant but I know it was a pretty cool day for me and for him.”

Hassell-Collins played 64 minutes for England, departing with the team in front on the scoreboard to allow Anthony Watson on to try and see out the victory. That success ultimately didn’t materialise as the Scots delivered a late sucker punch to win 29-23, but the defeat didn’t lessen the achievement of the London Irish winger making his Test debut, a breakthrough that narrowly eluded Danaher during his own career as a hard-as-nails back-rower.

Danaher’s own journey helped Hassell-Collins to successfully play the waiting game with England. “You don’t want to talk too much about your own experience but you can always go back on that and probably the one thing I could feed into Ollie when he wasn’t getting picked was to firstly keep banging in the door and the other thing was probably to ask questions.

“I didn’t ask enough questions about why I wasn’t in, why I wasn’t selected. You do it in the right way, you are not being aggressive or forceful but if you don’t ask you don’t know and at least then when you know you can do something with that feedback.

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“You can go, ‘Yes, that is spot on’, or you can actually go, ‘Okay, well at least I have got it now, I don’t have to necessarily go down that direction’ but at least you know exactly where you stand with someone.

“From a personal point of view, that was something that I always stressed to Ollie when it probably felt like he was banging on the door and no one was answering – just to keep knocking. And the other thing then is it’s all about your performance two-fold – your performance at the weekend for the team but then also how you train.

“You talk about poster boy but in terms of intensity of training. Ollie is an absolute freak. He trains like he plays so it’s almost like it’s the perfect preparation for him. He got his head around that pretty quick, that it was a big transfer over from what he did in training and how he trained to how he can play the game.

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“The next thing for him is something you can’t necessarily control, that intensity of what international rugby is like. So he is going to have to adapt pretty quickly to what Steve and England are asking him to do and then hopefully the quicker he adapts physiologically, it will allow us to see the best of Ollie with the ball in hand and in defence.”

With Borthwick having cut his England squad from 36 to 29 on Wednesday afternoon ahead of this Sunday’s round two match at home to Italy, London Irish were chuffed with having two players involved – Hassell-Collins and his back-three buddy Henry Arundell, who is back fit and firing after he debuted and featured on three occasions off the Test bench in Australia last July.

London Irish getting players capped by England at Test level was always one of the major targets of the Declan Kidney era. Not since Delon Armitage came through the academy more than a decade ago did the Exiles have a player come through their system and play for England. Instead, a pattern developed where players who had the potential to go all the way internationally felt it best to move elsewhere in the Premiership to fulfil that ambition.

It resulted in the likes of Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga heading to Bath and then becoming capped England players, but the emergence of Hassell-Collins and Arundell has now proven it is possible to get packed for England at the Exiles. What has this breakthrough done for club? “It just drives standards,” enthused Danaher.

“That is probably what Declan (Kidney) wants. If you are a young lad and you look around and you see guys above you who are setting standards, it’s easier for Michael Dykes and a lot of our young wingers coming through when they see the likes of Henry, Ollie, Ben Loader and the standards they are setting in training.

“So then it isn’t really a conversation for their coaches to say anything to them, they just look to the left and to the right and go, ‘Geez, this is the intensity I have got to train at and I have got to do this regularly’. It [England selection] does create a really, really good feeling in the club and it’s not just England, it’s Ben White playing for Scotland.

“That was amazing, great to see him go out and score. He is enjoying it, that’s two Calcutta Cups on the trot for him. It was brilliant to see the Italian boys put it up to France. I thought Danilo (Fischetti) was outstanding and Luca (Morisi) too with the way they attacked the game and the way Italy played.

“I’m excited already to see them go out and see the performance they can put in against England. So you talk about the feel-good factor, I’m chuffed as a coach but I am talking for the boys here, that is your peers going out and doing it in a Six Nations – that is always a pretty cool thing to see and to get behind.”

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