England's man apart becomes team's heartbeat

James Haskell is playing as well as ever – and his refusal to keep quiet can only help his side at this World Cup
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The Independent Online

James Haskell feels he was a "little misinterpreted". Misinterpreting the most outspoken – not to say the most loudly spoken – member of the England squad at this World Cup is not an insignificant achievement, for few players of recent red-rose vintage have made themselves more abundantly clear than the back-row forward from Windsor. Yet Haskell is insistent. "There was a bit of spice added to my words," he claims. "Basically, I suggested that when things don't go right people need to put their hands up to mistakes. Unfortunately, it came across I was standing on one side of the fence pointing at everyone else. I'd never do that."

This is where a duff World Cup display against second-tier opponents like Georgia tends to leave a team of England's stature. In the minutes after last weekend's game at Otago Stadium, Haskell publicly stated, in words that might have carried an "avoidance of doubt" label, that the performance had been a long way short of acceptable. Yes, England had won with a bonus, which was the primary point of the exercise, but in spending 80 per cent-plus of the first half struggling to reach the halfway line against a side of such limited international experience, the former world champions had made themselves look just a little daft. Whatever Haskell's precise words, and however they were presented, he said things that needed saying. Both he and his colleagues will be the better for it.

Just possibly, he is emerging as the conscience of the team. Certainly, he is the man bringing some energy to the mix. If he has had a better run of games in an England shirt since Brian Ashton picked him for a Test debut in the Six Nations match against Wales in Cardiff four years ago, Haskell himself cannot remember it. "I'm not the one to say whether I'm playing my best rugby, but I do believe I'm showing some consistency now," he acknowledges. "I feel settled, and that's a big part of it. I feel completely involved."

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that Haskell remains, on the face of it, a filler-in. He played on the open-side flank during the Six Nations – and again at the back end of the August warm-up programme – because Lewis Moody was injured, and stayed in the breakaway position for the opening tournament match against Argentina for the same reason. Last week, he moved to No 8. Why? Because Nick Easter had developed a bad back.

Yet it is becoming ever harder to imagine Martin Johnson and the coaches going into a major game against Scotland without Haskell in the starting combination. His value in and around the tackle area is very considerable indeed: he hits a high percentage of rucks. But there is more to his game now. Just recently, his carrying has been every bit as impressive as his clear-out work at the breakdown. Much more of this, and people will start wondering whether he might develop into the complete modern-day loose forward.

Tomorrow, he plays at No 8 once more, against the best player in the Romanian line-up: Ovidiu Tonita, who earns his money playing Top 14 rugby for Perpignan, who just happen to boast the toughest club pack in Europe. Another decent effort will put him in the pound seats for selection against the Scots, irrespective of whether Easter, who overhauled Lawrence Dallaglio to become England's first-choice eighthman at the last World Cup, regains full fitness.

There is no doubting the scale of Haskell's ambition. "I've grown up in this team with a lot of senior players and even when you've found your feet, you don't speak out of turn," he says. "But in a World Cup environment, it's so important that people are honest about their performances. We've had two wins from two – a record all teams in this tournament would take – but when things aren't happening on the field the players, myself included, have to look at their games and take responsibility for their mistakes. They have to look their team-mates in the eye and say: 'I did that, it was silly and it won't happen again – or if it does, there'll be a bloody good reason for it.'"

Much has been made of last Monday's team meeting, called to analyse and explain some of the nonsenses perpetrated in the Georgia fixture. "I want to stress that it wasn't unusual to hold the meeting," Haskell says. "It's something we always have after a game. People have painted it as a crisis meeting but it wasn't like that at all. However, I did feel that strong points had to be made, that there should be a bit more emphasis and intent, because both our World Cup games had gone down the same path: a lot of first-half penalties, a lot of territory conceded. As a result of the discussion, we've adjusted our structure a little, increased our intensity in training and moved on.

"Of course we understand the concerns of people back home. I was a rugby fan once and understand where the supporters come from, how they react. It's one of the reasons I was so frustrated after Georgia. The whole country is united, there's a large burden on us, the World Cup is the focus of everyone's attention and people want to see us do well. Equally, we want people to be proud of us, to look up to this team. What we're after now is an across-the-board performance. We need to get the penalty count down, the turnover count down, and play our brand of rugby with a real sense of control.

"We put six tries past Georgia but in between the good bits we were up and down – and yes, there was a question at times about who was in charge of the contest. Against Romania, who will be similar in approach, we want to be commanding and controlling. If it takes time, let's not panic. It's about weathering whatever it is Romania have to offer and move ahead on our own terms."

As far as the last part is concerned, this is what Haskell has always done. He left Wasps for the Parisian club Stade Francais when those in charge of the England side would have preferred him to stay put, and the moment this tournament ends he will head for Japan to take up a short-term contract with the Tokyo-based Ricoh Black Rams before going in search of a Super 15 contract, possibly in Australia. All this globetrotting will cost him: there will be no Six Nations, no place on England's summer tour of South Africa. Still, he is his own man – a fact Johnson and company may come to appreciate over the next fortnight or so.

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