James Haskell, who would have played a blinder for England at the World Cup had he actually been at the World Cup, may be lacking in a small number of the virtues commonly found in a rugby player of true international quality – experience springs to mind, along with the killjoy's ability to squeeze the life from a game in the last 10 minutes – but belief is very definitely not an issue. There is no religious dimension to this, although he has just finished reading Dante's Inferno and is currently thumbing through the musings of a Catholic priest who happens to be a friend of Shaun Edwards, the God-fearing defence coach at Wasps. When Haskell talks of belief, he looks inwards rather than upwards.
He has always been a confident sort – his website, which he set up at the tender age of 17, not only features the names of his personal sponsors, but grades them from "platinum" to "bronze" – and while he tries to play down this side of his character, he may as well not bother. It is all-consuming.
"People sometimes accuse me of being too self-confident, but they're not the ones who really know me," said the blind-side flanker this week, fresh from a decisive performance against Gloucester in an EDF Energy Cup match, during which he scored two late tries off the bench that helped Wasps to an unlikely victory. "Whatever confidence I have comes from the fact that I work so hard. Whenever I'm in the gym or on the training field, I try to be the last to leave. My parents have been successful in business because they put 100 per cent commitment into what they do, and they've taught me that while you can lie to everyone else, you can't lie to yourself. It's a valuable lesson, and it underpins everything I'm trying to achieve in my rugby."
Haskell is certainly a worker. Besides earning his stripes in a club environment renowned for its Spartan ethic – as well as being bossed around by Edwards, the 22 year-old from Windsor has the former All Black prop Craig Dowd and the all-seeing director of rugby Ian McGeechan on his case – he seeks extra help from outside. Margot Wells, the sprint coach with the paint-stripper voice, is one regular aide; others include a psychologist. During the World Cup, when his colleague and confidant Lawrence Dallaglio was away in France, he picked the brains of another No 8: a chap by the name of Zinzan Brooke, whose impact on New Zealand rugby was every bit as significant as Dallaglio's on the game in England, and probably more so.
"I needed some advice and thought he'd be as good a source as any," Haskell said. "I'm not comparing myself to him for a second, but I loved his style as a player." Did this mean he might start dropping outrageous goals from the halfway line, in honour of Brooke's famous three-pointer against England in the 1995 World Cup semi-final? "I did ask him about drop-goals, as a matter of fact, but he gave me a very stern look. I hope our discussions will continue, but I don't think I'll be raising that subject again."
When Haskell was omitted from the 30-man World Cup party last August, the looks were puzzled rather than stern. His club performances had been startlingly good for months – good enough for Brian Ashton, the national coach, to give him a Six Nations start against Wales in March – and there was a widespread theory that he and Dallaglio would travel to France to play the kind of two-hander that had worked so well in Wasps' drive towards a second Heineken Cup title: the old growler on the field for the first dark and dastardly 55 minutes; the young pup on for the last 25. As it turned out, Dallaglio got the trip and Haskell the heave-ho.
Was he disappointed? (A daft question, really, but worth asking). "I allowed myself a couple of days on that front," he replied, which was Haskell-speak for "yes, bitterly". Just a couple of days? After all, he had been in the thick of the preparation for weeks on end – the extreme test of mind and body at the Royal Marines boot camp; the exhausting warm-weather stint in Portugal; the nervous build-up to the pre-selection matches with Wales and France. Only a confirmed masochist would go through all that and then shrug off rejection as a school bully might shrug off a detention. It must have cut him to the quick.
"It was hard, being told I wouldn't be going to France, but being the person I am, I hadn't got too far ahead of myself in terms of expectation," he said. "I allowed myself a short period of time to feel bad about it, shared a few thoughts with my family and friends, and that was that. Let's be honest here: it wasn't as though I'd been battling away for years to get a place in the squad and been overlooked. If someone had told me nine months ago that I'd have a couple of caps to my name and gone close to winning a World Cup place, I'd have laughed out loud and said: 'Where do I sign up?'"
Did the England coaches give him a reason for their decision? "John Wells [the forwards specialist] told me they'd opted to go with people they knew more about," Haskell revealed. "He said that while they'd miss the things I offered on occasion, the style of rugby they were planning to play wasn't necessarily my style of rugby. I could see that – certainly, I feel I need to tighten up my game a little. Look at Lawrence, coming off the bench in that tight quarter-final against Australia. He was the safe pair of hands we needed. I'm not experienced at performing that kind of role and I don't have that pedigree.
"Anyway, I've put it behind me. When I look at someone like Simon Shaw" – the Wasps lock who missed both the 1995 and 1999 tournaments through injury and was also cut from the initial party in 2003 – "I see a tremendous player who spent more than a decade working towards his goal and suffering disappointment and rejection along the way. In a sense, he cleared a path through the minefield for me. It was up to me to tread carefully in reacting to my own setback, which I did."
Together with the outstanding young breakaway Tom Rees, he is one of two Wasps back-rowers who have an opportunity to place themselves at the centre of England affairs up to and including the 2015 World Cup, wherever that might be located. Haskell is viewed primarily as a blind-side operative, but he is a handy performer at No 8 and enjoys life at the back of the scrum. "I'm learning the ropes in both positions and I really don't mind where I play as long as I'm involved, but I love the old-fashioned thing about being part of the spine of the team. That's what the No 8 role gives you. You're first off the scrum, you have the ball in your hands and there's a chance to run, to create something. Still, it's a matter for the selectors. Whatever they do, they do for a reason. I'm happy either way."
So he should be, for he stands on solid ground. He plays for a club who have a track record of maximising the potential of their best young players, and he has the active and utterly committed support of his family. "My parents have watched every game I've ever played," he said, secure in the knowledge that they will be in Coventry for today's match with Munster – the first leg of Wasps' title defence and a repeat of the classic 2004 semi-final, which the young Haskell savoured as a supporter from the terraces at Lansdowne Road and has never forgotten. "Rugby is a short career and getting shorter – my brother, who played a bit, has taken the longer view by studying biology at university – but my folks are completely behind me. I'd describe my father as my biggest fan and my biggest critic. Sometimes, I ignore what he says about my game, and then find Ian McGeechan coming out with the same thing two weeks down the line. Rule number one: always listen to your parents."
As an eager talker, he will inevitably find himself saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment at some point in his career – just like his mentor Dallaglio, come to think of it. In fact, he already knows what it is to attract a withering stare from an England coach. "I remember Andy Robinson [Ashton's predecessor] walking into the club one day," Haskell recalled. "It was when there was some row about Matt Dawson not attending England training because of his television commitments, and he'd come to see him. I'd never met Andy, but when he walked up and asked me where Matt might be, I replied: 'He's obviously hiding from you.' He thought I was a complete prat."
Robinson has felt that way about more than one rugby-playing wannabe down the years, but along with every other coach in Britain, he would kill to have this particular upstart on his books right now. When the England coaching team next gather together in selectorial session, ahead of the 2008 Six Nations that will soon be upon us, the only thing Haskell is likely to share with friends and family will be a bottle of bubbly.Reuse content