Jack Willis: England hopeful on James Haskell, planning for life after rugby and winning the Premiership

Jack Willis could be forgiven if he was caught basking in the early success of his fledgling career. A fine first season as a true first-team regular at Wasps was capped last week when he was named in the England squad to tour South Africa next month.

A standout performance in front of the watching Eddie Jones, against Northampton at the Ricoh Arena last month, cannot have harmed his case but his was not a surprise inclusion. Willis has been exceptional since the turn of the year, becoming a virtual ever-present in Dai Young's back row.

That form was rewarded with the Aviva Premiership player of the month award in February. "I couldn't believe it," Willis tells ESPN of receiving the gong. "I didn't even know I was nominated for it. I didn't have a clue! It was a very nice surprise and a massive honour."

One would imagine Willis, 21, experienced similar emotions when news filtered through that his name had been included in the senior England squad ahead of his mentor James Haskell. But the back row is not one to get carried away, he is well aware that rugby careers are fleeting.

Willis credits Haskell with helping his development in Coventry, both on and off the pitch, but it comes as something of a surprise that the departing England forward has already focused his young teammate's mind on what comes after his playing career. He won't be following Haskell into the DJ booth, but Willis is hopeful that some of his business acumen might yet rub off on him.

"I've learned a lot off Hask," he says. "He's another guy who just never stops wanting to learn. He's just constantly trying to draw information from players around him, off coaches and also the other side of it is off the field.

"His networking is fantastic, the way he builds relationships with people and I think that's very important thinking about life after rugby."

Wasps players do not have to look far for signs that rugby dreams can be taken away in a heartbeat. Sam Jones was forced to retire in March having failed to recover from leg and ankle injuries picked up during a judo session at an England training camp almost 18 months earlier -- he was just 26.

The club's former captain Chris Bell, in his role as head of off-field development, offers guidance in this regard as do the Rugby Players' Association (RPA) but Willis cites Haskell as the driving force behind his own interest in non-rugby matters.

"The club are trying to push it across to make sure that you're planning for life after rugby, because you never really know when your career will end," Willis explains.

"He [Haskell] has been great inviting me to shooting events and things like that, just giving me the opportunity to talk to people and get me in touch with a few people in the business world to start building my contacts.

"I think that's something that's really important but, to be honest, at my age I probably wouldn't have thought of without him actually speaking to me and talking to me and letting me know important it is. It's something I'm trying to work on."

The impact Haskell has had on his protégé's early career is obvious. In reply to an effusive Instagram post from the young back row about his mentor following Haskell's final Wasps game at the Ricoh Arena, Danny Cipriani even suggested the pair were "morphing into the same person" and that influence can be heard in the way Willis methodically responds to questions.

"He's a massive loss," Willis says as he ponders life at Wasps without Haskell. "He's the sort of guy that on the rainy days out on the training field keeps you going, keeps that bit of banter going and he's a bit of a laugh.

"He's a massive character and someone who has brought a lot to the club over the time that he's been here. Especially for the young lads like me and my brother in the back row position, we've learned a lot off him and it's a shame to see him leave."

Haskell and Cipriani are both less than a fortnight away from leaving the club for a second time. Should they fail to beat Saracens in the Premiership semifinal at Allianz Park this Saturday, then they are already into their final week in the black and gold.

So, is there a feeling around the club's training ground at Broadstreet RFC that they want to send the pair, and Guy Thompson among others, out with a Premiership winner's medal draped around their neck? "That's a massive part of our focus going into it," Willis admits.

"If you win a trophy like the Premiership it's always going to be remembered. So, that's the target." Jack Willis

"But those three players would be the first to say, and Cips [Cipriani] said it, that it's not about them it's about achieving something as a team. And also for those guys to leave with memories and with achievements that we'll all share forever.

"It's something that won't be taken away, if you win a trophy like that it's always going to be remembered. So, that's the target."

Time might be running out for a few legends of the club, but the future at Wasps -- from a playing perspective -- is looking bright. Lima Sopoaga and Brad Shields headline the new arrivals hoping to replace Cipriani, Haskell, et al while there might be another Willis ready to make the step up to the first team.

Tom Willis is 19 but has already followed his older brother through the Wasps academy and into the England Under-20 setup, and is due to move in with Jack in the Midlands ahead of next season. Could he soon be keeping him company in the club's back row too?

"He's a great, great player. We're both very competitive with each other and always trying to drive each other on to become better players," Jack says. "I think a lot of it with rugby as a young player is opportunity and being fortunate in some ways but making sure you're ready for those opportunities."

He adds: "As brothers when we were younger [playing together] is something that you'd always dream of. But it doesn't come without a lot of hard work.

"We've got some great players coming into the back row next year, like Brad Shields, so it's not going to get easier. It's just about working hard and being ready for those chances."

Few would bet against Willis rising to that challenge, for club and country.