James Haskell could write a travel memoir based on his movements over the past year alone. His globe-trotting route to Kimberley on Wednesday has taken him from Paris to Dunedin (twice) via London and Tokyo, an itinerary far removed from the narrow furrow ploughed by most English professionals. The road less travelled has taught him plenty, both about himself and the game of rugby union.
It has been an illuminating journey on and off the field from the wreckage of England's World Cup campaign to the solitary life of a travelling minstrel in Japan and New Zealand, where red rose back-row forwards have no choice but to earn respect the hard way. It is a tribute to Haskell's lust for life that he would have happily kept roaming the world for a little bit longer.
The roving flanker, currently contracted to the Otago Highlanders, is adamant his stint abroad has been beneficial. "It has helped me grow up a little bit off the field and see different approaches to games, what works and what doesn't. If I could keep it going, and there was an option to keep playing Super 15 and represent England, then I would try to do it. I think playing outside Europe is a valuable experience for any player, especially in the Super 15."
This does not fit snugly, however, with the Rugby Football Union's stated policy of selecting only home-based players, other than in "exceptional circumstances". The 27-year-old Haskell, as a result, is heading back to Wasps for next season. If his international ambitions also require him to rough it with England's dirt-trackers down the road from Kimberley's famous Big Hole, so be it. "I'll always be thankful to Stuart Lancaster for giving me the opportunity. It means a lot to me."
In return he has been able to share some of the tricks of the trade he has picked up during his odyssey. What has struck him in New Zealand, for example, is how relatively little knowledge All Blacks have of their English counterparts. "One of the most interesting things I learned from people like Adam Thomson and Andrew Hore is that, bar knowing someone like Owen Farrell and what foot he kicks off and what basic pattern we have, they don't know who they are playing against. If you get your own gameplan sorted and worry about yourself, everything else takes care of himself. Sometimes as a nation we have been a little caught up in talking up opposition too much."
His spell with the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan was equally enlightening. "In Japan you have to look to yourself to rise to the challenge every week. We had a few foreign guys but you couldn't sit in their pockets. It would have been easy to go: 'I'm in Japan, nobody is really looking, I could lie back', but it made me realise that motivation has to come from me. We were all over Japan – bullet train here, bullet train there. Sometimes it is difficult sitting in a hotel room thinking: 'I literally don't know what they have just said.' But I knew they expected big things of me. You can easily cut corners in life and I found that isn't what I am about."
He is also under no illusions he may have to be patient on this trip. England's midweek opponents, the Southern Barbarians, are not the strongest and even a seat on the Test bench on Saturday will take some earning. "I have 42 caps but I am right at the bottom of the ladder here. They talk in New Zealand about All Blacks having a three-year life expectancy in the shirt. Without Stuart putting it into words it is the same thing here. You are not guaranteed a shirt, you have to fight for it."
England's second-stringers may even encounter the odd scuffle at GWK Park . "I would imagine that, like most midweek sides, they will be fairly hostile and physical and will be looking to stick one on us," said England's assistant coach Simon Hardy. "But we want to regain some momentum on this tour and that comes from winning matches. There is a physical battle to be had and let's take it up."
SA Barbarians Jansen (Boland); Hendricks (Boland), Rautenbach (South Western Districts), Stevens (Eastern Province Kings, capt), Nelson (EP Kings); Watts (Boland), Abrahams (EP Kings); Fourie (Pumas), Franklin (EP Kings), Geldenhuys (Boland), Clark (Boland), Bulbring (EP Kings), Mbiyozo (EP Kings), Raubenheimer (SWD), Engelbrecht (EP Kings). Replacements Lewis (Boland), Hopp (SWD), Fihlani (Border), Jordaan (Boland), Kebe (Border), Croy (Boland), Dukisa (Border).
England Goode (Saracens); Strettle (Saracens), Allen (Leicester), Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Wade (London Wasps); Hodgson (Saracens), Care (Harlequins); Mullan (Worcester), Gray (Harlequins), Doran-Jones (Northampton), Kitchener (Leicester), Robson (Harlequins, capt), Haskell (Highlanders), Fearns (Bath), Waldrom (Leicester). Replacements T Youngs (Leicester), Harden (Gloucester), Palmer (Stade Francais), Gibson (London Irish), Dickson (Northampton), Lowe (Harlequins), Abendanon (Bath).
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