James Haskell: 'It's been a tough time'

No player has come in for more criticism than the London Wasps and England flanker this season. So Hambo asks his former Under-21 team-mate to set the record straight
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MATT HAMPSON: You've been at London Wasps your whole career. So the question everyone wants to ask is, why the big move to France?

JAMES HASKELL: I think the important thing is that I've been a Wasps player for about five years but I've also been a Wasps fan for a long time. You know I was irritating the likes of Joe Worsley and Lawrence Dallaglio for autographs each week and driving them mad for ages!

I think the easiest thing I could have done would have been to stay at Wasps and carry on, but I want to try and do something a bit out of my comfort zone which is to accept a different challenge.

You know I've learnt a lot from all of the great players that have been at Wasps, but I wanted to join a club like Stade Francais which was equally as competitive as Wasps and to try and keep progressing my game, to learn a new language and experience different things.

MH: You mentioned Lawrence Dallaglio who has been a massive influence on your career. He has openly criticised your decision to leave Wasps and move to France. How do you feel about that?

JH: Obviously, Lawrence is entitled to his own opinion; he's a guy who showed great loyalty to Wasps and refused a lot of offers during his career. But I think my career and his are very different.

I have always been very flattered about the comparisons with Lawrence, but if I'm completely honest with you, and many people would agree, I'm nowhere near the player he was. But what I want to do is to go away, improve on my game and become a better player. Then one day perhaps I can come back to Wasps. Our careers are and will be different because it's a different time and the game has changed compared to when Lawrence was my age, and I have my own objectives.

MH: You began the 2009 Six Nations in the England team. But Tom Croft came in for the later matches. He's obviously your main rival for the starting jersey?

JH: From my perspective it's obviously very disappointing not to have finished the Six Nations the way I started. I was first choice against Italy and was fairly pleased with my performance and was looking forward to a good tournament. Although I didn't play badly, I didn't set the world alight, and with Nick Easter playing well and Joe Worsley being very good against Wales and then again against Ireland, unfortunately I was the one to be dropped.

I think Tom took his opportunity; he is a very good player and he offers a lot to the team - in some respects we are different players. But it's up to me, I've got to win the shirt back, it was a reversal of what happened in the autumn. Tom started the first two games and I took the shirt off him for the last two.

I think that will be the story of our careers until either someone else comes along who is as competitive or one of us really holds the spot down.

MH: When we played together at age group level for England, you always used to call me the 'Leicester mute'! How are you getting on with the other Leicester mutes these days?!

JH: There aren't so many around these days, they don't tend to hang around in groups anymore!

I've always got on well with Crofty; it's difficult sometimes because we are both very focused you sometimes forget that you are such good mates - we have been on U19 tours, played U21s and had a lot of fun together.

We are good friends but in that competitive environment you just get your head down and focus on the rugby.

MH: You're not just a rugby player; off the field you are quite a character. I know you write a newspaper column and have an impressive website but what else do you get up to?

JH: I've always had an eye on making sure I have something to fall back on when I finish rugby. But first and foremost I'm a rugby player and that's where I keep my focus.

I don't really have too many off field activities, I've got my Young Guns academy which I've set up, but to be honest with you I'm really solely focused on my rugby.

It may appear that I have lots of things going on and sometimes people judge me before they realise how hard I really work on my game. I spend my life trying to work hard to allow me to keep performing.

MH: I've heard a lot about your famous dog, Aero. Any amusing tales?

JH: Nothing too outlandish! He's a terrible food thief; occasionally he gets out of the house and goes AWOL, coming back hours later.

One time he returned with what my mother thought was a human leg in his mouth which actually turned out to be the leg of a deer! She was upset as she thought the dog had dug up a body.

Apart from that he's been relatively well behaved at the moment.

MH: So what's next for James Haskell?

JH: To be honest with you, the last four or five months of this season have probably been the toughest of my career and not particularly enjoyable. It's been a tough time.

I've not performed as well as I've wanted on the field. At times, I've shown what I can do, but I've not replicated my form of last season as often as I would have liked.

What I want to do is finish on a high note with Wasps, qualify for the Heineken Cup, and, if lucky enough, be selected for the tour with England. Then I can start afresh.

It's been a difficult time; I've come under a lot of criticism. I've never lost so many games in one season, but luckily the attitude and mentality I've learnt at Wasps is to keep your head down, work hard, and never give up. That's what I want to do, but it hasn't been easy.

MH: How do you think you'll feel when you play for the last time for Wasps?

JH: I think I will be upset. It's never been about snubbing Wasps or the fact that I don't enjoy it there. I love everything about the club and I'll always be a London Wasps player through and through.

I'm sure it'll be emotional when it finally hits me that I'm leaving but at the age of 24, with two years away, I think I'll grow up and come back a much stronger player.