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'Do you want to go?': How shock Gatland call unfolded 32 days after Haskell's 2017 Lions rejection

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Players left disappointed by Thursday’s 2021 Lions squad announcement by Warren Gatland shouldn’t believe all is completely lost judging by the story of what happened in 2017 to James Haskell, the England back-rower who missed the initial cut for the squad chosen to tour New Zealand. 


It was April 19 four years ago when Gatland unveiled a 41-strong squad that had no room for Haskell, but a phone call from out of the blue 32 days later as he was about to go for a Sunday lunch with his wife and parents changed everything. With Billy Vunipola out with a hurt shoulder, Haskell was on the Lions’ plane to New Zealand just over a week later.  

Now-retired, the England forward had never considered himself a shoo-in player for any squad throughout his career and his reaction to initially getting left out of the 2017 Lions should be instructive for anyone who feels let down by this Thursday’s 2021 announcement.

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Ex-Wallabies boss Michael Cheika on trans-Tasman rugby
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Ex-Wallabies boss Michael Cheika on trans-Tasman rugby

Haskell didn’t dwell on his misfortune. Instead, he stayed stuck in at Wasps and soon helped them to qualify for that year’s Premiership final, a competition they went to extra time just days before the Lions squad flew out from Heathrow for their 10-match tour. 

Ask Haskell about his Lions selection memories and his recollection of what unfolded in 2017, a rejection followed four-and-a-half weeks later by inclusion, is entertainingly vivid. He told RugbyPass: “Well, I was an afterthought because of Billy Vunipola being injured. 

“I have never been a shoo-in anywhere. I don’t know what it is like to be a shoo-in, a Maro Itoje or an Alun Wyn Jones. I never knew what it was like to be like that. I can only ever talk about the fact that it was always touch-and-go and there was always that trepidation (over selection) because you always allow your mind to wander, to think ‘could I do this, could this be my chance?’


“I remember 2017. I had just come back from injury, had played really well in 2016, was starting getting back into form but hadn’t played for a while – my toe was a bit of an issue. I remember turning up to Wasps training and there was a Lions announcement. 

“I know some clubs were sitting around, watching, listening, but we weren’t doing that, we were training in the gym and someone came up and said, ‘Unlucky mate’. I went, ‘Oh, it looks like I didn’t get in’. It didn’t mean that I didn’t wake up that morning thinking this could be my chance, I wonder can I do it. 

“But I didn’t get in and didn’t pay any attention to it, didn’t see any celebrations and then obviously fast forward four weeks or whatever and Billy, unfortunately, got injured and I got a call from Warren Gatland.”

Here’s how that brief chat unfolded: 


WG: Hask, do you want to go on the Lions?

JH: Yeah.

WG: Are you fit?

JH: Yeah.

WG: Are you sure you want to go?

JH: Yeah.

WG: I’ll call you back.

Gatland then put the phone down and left Haskell waiting 30 minutes for a callback for his former Wasps boss.  

WG: I want to take you on the Lions tour.

JH: Okay.

WG: Are you sure you want to go?

JH: Yeah.

WG: Right, I’ll see you soon.

Haskell takes up the story again. “He put the phone down and that was it. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I was in Leamington Spa with my wife and my mum and dad, just about to go out for a Sunday lunch. 

“They loved it but there was that nervous moment because he [Gatland] didn’t confirm it for 30 minutes and I didn’t know about Billy sadly, didn’t know what the story was and wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Then I had the Premiership final where we played something like 106 minutes of rugby and I didn’t get injured – but there was always that fear of doing that.”


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