The Making of…Ollie Hassell-Collins

Speed machine Ollie Hassell-Collins has always been a step ahead of the rest.

Speed machine Ollie Hassell-Collins has always been a step ahead of the rest.

England’s latest wing sensation was walking aged just eight months and has now been catapulted into their starting XV, just a couple of weeks after his 24th birthday.

Hassell-Collins played the first 65 minutes of England’s Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland, showing glimpses of the talent new head coach Steve Borthwick is so excited by.

Fans of London Irish have become accustomed to watching the floppy young haired flyer burst away from defences, and 18 months on from his first call up to an England training camp, he finally has the chance to show what he can do on the biggest stage of all.

It has been a long journey defined by an unflinching desire to maximise his undoubted potential. But if you ask those closest to Hassell-Collins, they will tell you this is just the beginning.

Hassell-Collins did not have to look too far for his sporting inspiration. His father, Neil Collins, was once a stalwart of the Newbury Rugby Club first XV, regularly turning out in the front row at Monks Lane.

“Oliver’s always been around rugby,” explained Collins.

“He came to watch me play when he was younger and I was still playing up at Newbury, and we used to sit and watch games together on TV.

“He started playing with the minis at Newbury when he was Under-8s and enjoyed a few years there.”

But it was not just rugby that piqued young Hassell-Collins’ interest, with swimming and football also high on the agenda.

After a few years balancing the three it was the round shaped ball which Hassell-Collins gravitated towards, taking a break from rugby to join his school friends at a local football club.

But the separation only made the heart grow fonder, with Hassell-Collins lured back by rugby’s inescapable charm after a call from his former team.

“The Newbury boys were going down to a tournament in Bath at the Rec and they were short of a player,” recalled Collins.

“It was outside the football season so he said he would play.

“He scored a couple tries and had a great day as boys do at those tournaments, having a laugh and eating burgers and all that sort of stuff, and I think that pushed him away from football and back towards rugby.”

It will not come as much of a surprise to know that one of the fastest players in the Gallagher Premiership was once a budding sevens player.

Hassell-Collins later turned heads across the circuit when playing for the Ramblin’ Jesters, an elite side with a self-proclaimed ‘mission to entertain.’

And it was an England great who sparked his interest in the shorter format of the game several years earlier.

“We were at a bit of a loose end one weekend and the London sevens was on,” said Collins.

“So at the last minute we went up to Twickenham. I thought we would probably sit and watch a couple of games and then go for a walk and come back.

“He sat glued the whole day and it finished with Dan Norton scoring the winning try against New Zealand in the final.

“That was definitely another moment that really fired his enthusiasm into rugby and into sevens as well.”

By this point, Hassell-Collins was firmly back on the rugby trail and enjoying great success too.

He picked up the County Festival trophy with secondary school St Bartholomew’s before captaining Newbury’s Under-16s team to a tournament win on home soil.

A lot of hard work was going on behind the scenes, with hours dedicated to perfecting his kicking game, evasion skills and contact work, as the lanky young lad grew into an unstoppable force.

Jonah Rossiter, a teammate of Hassell-Collins for nearly a decade at Newbury, said it was around his mid-teens that his game soared to new levels.

“He was always really good but when we got to 15, 16 it was literally a case of giving the ball to Ollie,” said Rossiter.

“We played a few sevens tournaments and he was ridiculous. The poor kid was so out of breath because we made him run all the time.”

Hassell-Collins’ PE teacher at St Bartholomew’s, David Bateman, agreed: “It was around that time he really started to develop.

“He stood out for his athletic ability, speed, turn of pace and amazing fend – all the things you see today.

“He was a good lad that just got on with things. He may not have been the loudest character but on the pitch was where he shone and came out of his shell.”

Due to his brief flirtation with football, Hassell-Collins was not initially on the radar of the Berkshire county selectors or Premiership club academies.

So he squeezed all he could out of his time at Newbury, with a tour to Brazil in the summer of 2015 a particular highlight.

But when it came to deciding what to do for sixth form, Hassell-Collins was at first unsure, until his father returned home with a leaflet that would have a big impact on his future.

“As I was leaving the club one day, there was a leaflet there for the London Irish ACE programme trials,” said Collins.

“I showed it to Ollie and he said we might as well go along, we had nothing to lose.

“He went along and played for about 10 minutes or so and then Declan Danaher, one of the coaches, came over and said you don’t need to trial anymore, because we want you to join our academy group.

“That was the point where he thought actually, this could be something I could do.”

Fully immersed in a professional environment, Hassell-Collins would be tested like never before in the Irish academy set up.

As he edged ever nearer to the professional game, the competition got stiffer and there were some challenging moments, notably on an England Under-18s tour to South Africa.

But according to Irish academy manager Patrick O’Grady, Hassell-Collins knew what he had to work on and made the necessary adjustments.

“When he joined us he certainly wasn’t the finished product,” said O’Grady. “He was always a big athlete and good player but there were a lot of areas he had to develop.

“What he did have was an unbelievable desire to improve and a very competitive edge.

“Consistency was probably his biggest work-on, and he probably hadn’t been exposed to the kicking game at under-18 schoolboy rugby.

“But the ability he had on the ball and beating defenders became a super strength.”

That much was evident on his Premiership debut, with Hassell-Collins scoring what proved to be the winning try in a 29-26 victory over Wasps.

And he has not looked back since, wracking up more than 90 appearances for the Exiles, who have established themselves as the entertainers of England’s top division.

He is their top try-scorer so far this season, which is one of the many reasons why O’Grady anticipates a long and fruitful international career for his former prodigy.

“I see Ollie being a long-term solution for England with his all-court game,” said O’Grady.

“He can go over the top of people, around them with his footwork and spins and he’s very proficient in tight spaces.

“He’s the all-round package but he’s now very consistent across the board which is what a top-level coach will want.”

The Collins clan don’t miss many of their boy’s matches. In fact, Collins senior has missed just two matches so far this season.

But for Collins’ mother Claire, sister Polly and partner Eloise, Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash was among the very best days out.

This weekend, Italy are in town but, before then, there is one small ritual left to take place between father and son, one that now has extra meaning.

“Every time he gets selected I send him a message saying, ‘congratulations, well done,’ because I mean it, it’s no mean feat being selected for a Premiership team or at any level,” said Collins.

“To see him play for England is just incredible. I know he is hugely honoured by that. I’ll take my tissues to Twickenham.”