James Haskell is in the perfect place to weigh up the all-French final of the Heineken Cup – and that doesn't just mean the weekend he is spending with his brother watching today's Monaco Grand Prix. The England back-rower has just completed his first season with Stade Français and says that while Toulouse are obvious favourites to beat Biarritz in Paris on Saturday, the unpredictability of the French club game means you would not put your mortgage on it, and certainly not the 10 million euros invested in the squad of each club.
A family connection with the owner of the Force India Formula One team took Haskell to Monte Carlo for today's race, but his club rugby campaign finished three weeks ago with Stade in a disappointing eighth place in the Top 14 table. Mind you, Toulouse were fourth and Biarritz seventh, so their appearance in the European showpiece in front of 80,000 spectators at Stade de France has shown the league's strength in depth. "Toulouse, when they're on the money, can knock over any team in the world," said Haskell, who will fly home tonight to join a three-day training session with England, "but I've learned that anyone can beat anyone in France. The French are more emotional than calculated and if every player in the Biarritz team is on their emotional mettle, Toulouse will have to watch out."
Much has been made of the bravery of Imanol Harinordoquy, Biarritz's France No 8 who played through the semi-final defeat of Munster with a broken rib – and Harinordoquy said yesterday: "I was lucky against Munster because I could have ended up with a punctured lung. Technically, I won't be within the usual healing times for the final, but I will be on the field at Stade de France. What is at stake is too important."
Haskell, below, who won the Heineken Cup with Wasps against Leicester in 2007, said Toulouse would look to close Harinordoquy down, as England did with some success in this year's Six Nations Championship. "We'd all play with broken ribs and broken noses," said Haskell. "The danger man for Biarritz is Takudzwa Ngwenya on the wing. He made Shane Williams look like a muppet in the quarter-final. I'd rush out of the line and not let him get started or you're in big trouble. For Toulouse, David Skrela at fly-half cannot afford to kick loosely. He can be slightly shambolic or he can be great, putting his big centres into space. And they've got [the flanker] Thierry Dusautoir, who is probably the world's best for destructive tackling."
Haskell will tell the England manager, Martin Johnson, that he is itching to play a 36th match of the season against the Barbarians on 30 May – above the limit for English-based elite players that does not apply to those in France – and he is relishing the subsequent tour to Australia and New Zealand. "The press and public are talking about next year's World Cup but my perspective is that the tour gives this England team a chance to impose themselves. We finished well in the autumn against New Zealand, and in the Six Nations against France. This time we have to kick in straight away and produce our best from the off."