England's secret weapon? Ollie Hassell-Collins and his nail polish
Ollie Hassell-Collins is not only the first wing to make his England debut in the Six Nations since Jack Nowell in 2014 – but also the first England men’s player to play his opening match with painted fingernails.
The Harry Potter-worshipping Newbury Rugby Club product, named on Thursday to play on the left wing against Scotland, has previously admitted that he is a bit “out there”. In Saturday’s Calcutta Cup his eccentricities will be presented on the most public of stages – starting with those red-and-white painted nails.
“My nails ... I wear quite a lot of jewellery and, obviously, I can’t wear jewellery in games,” the London Irish wing told the Rugby Football Union’s Inside Line series. “So I suppose it’s almost like my permanent jewellery.
“I used to bite my nails. I was painting them before – but clear. So, I decided to jazz them up a bit. It used to be white and green, for Irish, but now they’re white and red for England.”
In 2021, Hassell-Collins told Telegraph Sport: “I try to be a bit different and try to be a bit out there. When I broke into the [London Irish] team, I secured my spot, I felt I was a big part of the team so I could express myself more.
“I am massively into Harry Potter. I’ve just bought a house with my girlfriend and we have three cats. I am into tattoos and jewellery.”
In 2023, the environment is no longer Irish but firmly English. Hassell-Collins, after yo-yoing between England squads under Borthwick’s predecessor, Eddie Jones, will finally get the chance to prove on Saturday at Twickenham that he is the all-court wing that England have been lacking.
In his favour, he has been tearing up trees for London Irish. Kevin Sinfield, the England defence coach, cited Hassell-Collins’s defensive intelligence as one of his greatest strengths, but the wing is sprightly, strong and supple.
He is just as capable leaping with salmon as he is truffling with pigs. That form with his club led to an unexpected call after the Exiles’ Champions Cup 28-14 defeat in Brentford by the Stormers, from South Africa, in mid-January.
“Steve [Borthwick] called me after the Stormers game,” Hassell-Collins says. “I was in the car with my girlfriend and I got the call. It was a bit nerve-racking.
“She was looking at me saying, ‘What do we do?’ I answered it and he asked how the game went and then congratulated me. My girlfriend was trying to hold back tears and excitement while I was on the call – but it was an amazing feeling. Sometimes I don’t feel like I come across as too excited, so I dropped him a text afterwards telling him how excited I was.
“The boys have been really welcoming. They are so easy to talk to. It’s one of the highest levels you can get to in rugby. Something I’ve dreamed about for a long time. It’s very nerve-racking coming in here, with players who have been here for a long time and who have achieved some incredible things in rugby.
“But it’s really inspiring training with those guys; feeling comfortable and not afraid to make mistakes. It’s almost like you can train confidently, comfortable in what you’re doing.”
It is well known that rugby teams value a left-footed kicker such as Hassell-Collins and also that Borthwick rates the London Irish wing; not only has the England head coach selected him to start in his first match in charge but, earlier in the season, Borthwick was chasing Hassell-Collins’s signature while still the head coach of Leicester.
“There are a lot of players who the fans will be excited about,” the England head coach says. “Ollie Hassell-Collins, he’s a terrific player. He has got speed, he has got pace, he takes people on the outside, he can cut back in on his left foot, he is good under the high ball and, as I said, defensively he’s a guy over 100kg (15st 10lb) and 6ft 4in and he can hit and he can run fast.
“I think most of us would like to have those attributes. He’s an excellent player and a fantastic young man. He’s brilliant.
“I will rewind about five weeks, and some of the phone calls that I had, where I started speaking to players, going and meeting players, or ringing players. The players that were on my list included a lot of players that hadn’t had many opportunities recently.
“And I listened to them, I watched them and you see these players who are just so desperate to be in the England shirt. When you are on the phone to them, you could hear it down the phone, you could see it in their body when I met with them face to face.
“That is exciting. For me, it is incredibly rewarding.
“So, the players have got an opportunity, and that is what they wanted – an opportunity – and now they have got to take that.
“And I back them to do it, by bringing all their strengths on to the pitch.”
And Hassell-Collins’s strength? He is hard as nails, of course.