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How 'subtle' advice from an ex-All Black helped new England winger

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Getty Images)

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Waisake Naholo never played all that much during his injury-hit two-year stay at London Irish which ended in June 2021 but the role the former star All Blacks winger played in advising Ollie Hassell-Collins has been remembered by Declan Kidney in the wake of the uncapped 23-year-old’s call-up this week to the England Six Nations squad. 

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Hassell-Collins was a raw, wide-eyed talent coming out a season of Championship rugby with Irish when Naholo arrived at the London club. On-pitch fireworks were expected from a Test player who had been capped on 26 occasions by the All Blacks, a run that ended against Italy in Rome in November 2018.

However, Naholo was bedevilled by injury during his stay in the Premiership, making just four appearances in his maiden season in England and none at all in his second which ended in Irish releasing the 30-year-old who has since returned to New Zealand where he has featured for Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup. 

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Rob Kearney and Alfie Barbeary – A Lion and a Wasp
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Rob Kearney and Alfie Barbeary – A Lion and a Wasp

This lack of game time at Irish meant that his time at the club was largely viewed from the outside as a waste given the level of money spent to bring in an All Blacks player, but Kidney begged to differ and he revisited the Naholo issue this week when hailing the call-up of Hassell-Collins to England.  

“These lads (like Ollie) would have grown up watching fellas like Waisake play for the All Blacks but when Waisake talked to them, he talked to them as an equal and they felt that. ‘Okay, he is talking to me as an equal’,” suggested Kidney to RugbyPass about a Premiership squad where young players who came through the academy system at Irish are bolstered by a scattering of knowledgable former Test players from overseas.

“That instils confidence in them and that is the best type of confidence for a player to get. As a coach, a parent or a mentor, we can say what we like to the lads but there is nothing like them hearing one of their own say how they are going. There was a few ups and downs for Ollie over his time as well and Waisake talked them through those in Waisake’s way. 

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“It was never an out-in-the-open thing. It was always more a quiet word and things like that, but that was the impressiveness of it and it’s a bit of what Waisake brought to the club… Waisake’s influence was I suppose more subtle rather than being able to give you an out-and-out example. 

“I do remember alright in one dressing room at half-time or whatever way the game was going, it was in the balance or it hadn’t gone too well in the first half, and Waisake said ‘just be you’ and there was an understanding nod between the two of them. 

“In itself, that is a nothing sentence but it is just what went on, the talks they would have had and the way they would have been done, in between sessions at meals and stuff. Some players keep themselves to themselves whereas Waisake was very generous with his time with the younger fellas. He knew his role was to help bring them through and I am sure he is celebrating Ollie’s elevation to the English squad as well.” 

Subtle pep talks from the now-departed former All Blacks winger weren’t the only thing that helped Hassell-Collins to develop his game to the point where he was named as one of six uncapped players in England’s 2022 Six Nations squad. “There has been a lot of good coaching going on here, he is working with very good coaches in Les (Kiss), Brad (Davis) and James Lightfoot Brown then as well through the academy. They have all helped him to do it [earn an England call]. 

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“Other senior players have helped him along the way, as has the way the team is playing. When wingers touch the ball down they always get the man of the match awards and stuff like that but, as I tell them, that is your job to touch the ball down. You are the last man standing out on the wing because an awful lot of work has gone on well on the inside. 

That is the part of Ollie’s game that has improved the most, his work off the ball. He had a try-saving tackle for us last Saturday against Edinburgh where he covered across and managed to catch a man right on the line. They are the things that would impress me as much as anything, that off the ball work that a winger does that sometimes they don’t get the credit for. 

“They get the credit for what you see them doing, which is maybe high balls, linebreaks or touching the ball down, but it’s the unseen work of covering over and coming across. Even though they mightn’t have to do anything, they stop the space of the opposition and his work rate there is very high and is improving.”

London Irish players getting Test level recognition by England is rare, even more so when it comes to the Six Nations. England boss Eddie Jones originally had a nibble when Hassell-Collins, along with Chunya Munga and Tom Parton, were included in the wider training squad that initially briefly assembled in early June last year for the following month’s summer series.    

Jones must have liked what he saw as he has now summoned Hassell-Collins for Six Nations duty, starting with a week of prep in Brighton from next Monday before the emphasis switches to the England training centre at Pennyhill in the lead-up to the February 5 match away to Scotland.

“It has been a while (since London Irish enjoyed England selection) so we are delighted that the hard work that Ollie has put in has come to fruition,” enthused Kidney, who well knows what it takes for players to succeed at Test level as he was the Ireland head coach for five seasons where he led them to the 2009 Six Nations Grand Slam.  

“We are not surprised because Ollie has worked hard at it. He knows there is a lot of things for him to learn but getting in the squad is a great stepping stone for him along the way. It was announced to the squad and there was a good reaction, everybody was delighted for him and they just knew the significance. It has been a while and it’s good that Irish lads are breaking through now. 

“It’s good management out of Eddie that he brings in these young fellas on the periphery to see how they are in the environment before they get into the squad fully,” continued Kidney, referencing how Hassell-Collins has a couple of England training days last June. “The trick now is not to be taken up by the occasion and the attention that goes with it. 

“We all live in a privileged bubble (in club rugby) but once you get into Test match rugby it is even more so. All the training sessions, they are not quite public knowledge but it is far more in the open and there is far more inquisition and Ollie is a new kid on the block.

“The norm of that is he will get a lot of attention over the coming days and it’s just about being able to wear that. It’s all part of the journey of it and we said we will congratulate him more when he gets on the team.”

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