Haskell pulls a flanker on Wales

Reluctant two-try hero is reaping the rewards of playing his rugby in France
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The Independent Online

Whatever James Haskell is eating over there in Paris – unusually large helpings of steak tartare, perhaps, washed down with umpteen pints of bull's blood – it is doing him the power of good. The two contrasting tries he put past Wales in the Six Nations opener on Saturday amounted to a good day's work in anyone's language, but there was more, far more, to his game than wrestling the ball over the line at the end of the first half and cottoning on to Mathew Tait's sliderule-precise glide upfield at the end of the second.

Primarily, he played a full part in drawing the sting from a Welsh loose-forward unit that looked capable of hurting England at every turn, using his ever-increasing size and strength to subdue the bludgeoning Andrew Powell – one of those who beat Haskell to a place in last summer's British and Irish Lions tour party – and joining with his fellow back-rowers, Lewis Moody and Nick Easter, in keeping the exceptional Martyn Williams in some sort of check. Little wonder, then, that he should have been a picture of happiness on Saturday night, even though he knew he was about to suffer an uncomfortable dose of the tabloids on account of his love life.

"I was pleased to win the man of the match award, but if you're asking me if I thought I deserved it, I'd say Nick – the 'Dominator' [Easter], as he likes to be known – was the man," said the flanker, who moved from Wasps to Stade Francais eight months ago. "He was outstanding, as was Lewis. You have two guys there who have a really physical, determined edge to them and they allow me to slot in behind them. Nick did some really good things. As for Lewis, I'd hate to play against him. He's so destructive. More than any player I know, he's prepared to put his body in places where you don't want your body to go."

Not exactly renowned for hiding his light under a bushel – even before he had started making his way at international level, he could boast a personal website with sponsors ranked "platinum", "gold" and "silver" – Haskell was on this occasion guilty of underplaying his own contribution. The best back-row combinations require a workhorse at close quarters and while Haskell once seemed temperamentally ill-suited to the anonymity of the cement-between-the-bricks role, things appear to have changed. If, but for his tries, the paying public might have been blind to his blind-side performance, it would not have affected him in the least.

His selfless, self-sacrificial work in the loose was at the heart of England's success in withstanding the Welsh resurgence in the final half-hour, and in the player's view, the same kind of spirit runs throughout the side – reassuring news, given the proximity of the 2011 World Cup. "It's those who keep the cool head and control the ball who win the tight matches," he said. "There's always a sense of desperation when you lose a big lead and find yourselves under the sticks with nothing but a three-point gap in your favour, but we've worked hard to create what I'd call a 'winning atmosphere'. That means sticking together. We'd rather have died than give in to them, whatever they were throwing at us, and to my mind we were never going to be beaten.

"There have been times in the past when we might have lost, but that last, winning try came from being prepared to go for an interception. A team with the confidence to try things is a team with the confidence to win."

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