James Haskell: 'There's myth and magic here. France is unique'

James Haskell has swapped the 'beer and muddy baths' of Wasps for the 'passion and colour' of Stade Français, who, he has quickly learnt, are aching to win the Heineken Cup.
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The Independent Online

Inhale deeply of Parisian air and you'll detect a distinct whiff of cordite as the most brash and colourful of all French clubs embark on a very personal European campaign.

It is difficult not to be dazzled by Stade Français with their floral jerseys – a brazen off-the-shoulder wallpaper look – international signings and record-smashing 80,000 crowds when they take their very serious circus to Stade de France.

Today, Stade begin their Heineken Cup quest at home to Edinburgh, the first of their Pool Four appointments, with former winners Bath and Ulster to follow.

For Stade, it's not just about the razzle-dazzle, however. Rather in the mould of soccer multi-nationals such as Arsenal and Chelsea who have yet to win the Champions League, Stade ache to rule Europe, not least to restore French pride in a tournament they once dominated yet haven't won since Toulouse triumphed in 2005.

England No 8, James Haskell, confesses to genuine surprise at the depth of feeling within the club about the complex that goes with failing to match Toulouse and Brive as French European Champions.

At 24, Haskell is already a Heineken Cup winner with his former club Wasps, as is his fellow England and ex-Wasp lock Tom Palmer. The pair arrived in Paris together during the summer.

"There's myth and magic about French rugby," said Haskell, "a unique environment far removed from the beer and muddy-bath origins of rugby back home."

However, the glitz and showbiz seen by the public, the sheer daring of Stade's approach to giving supporters a real sporting experience, dresses up a resolve of pretty ruthless steel. "We want this trophy more than anything. French rugby is results driven. Too many defeats and players get axed, coaches get sacked. Many people in Britain have a wholly inaccurate view of the game in France.

"When I decided to leave the comfort-zone of Wasps in an attempt to develop my game and my career, people warned me of the 'dangers of getting lost in the nightlife.' So far, I've had one night out in Paris with four other players, and that was brief. More often it's training – I've never worked harder in my life – followed by mandatory French lessons every afternoon.

"The myths are shattered when you actually live and work here, but never the magic. We've played in front of crowds of 42,000 and 46,000 already this season. You could almost compare rugby in its major domains in France with football in England in terms of status and crowds."

And the statistics paint a revealing picture of a nation's clear but not so present influence on the biggest club competition in northern hemisphere rugby.

The Heineken Cup without a dominant French presence is like a Martini without Vermouth, a flawed chemistry, an incomplete entity.

Only four of the 14 Heineken Cup finals since it's 1995-96 inception has been staged without the presence of a French club.

Toulouse have reached the most finals, five, and won the trophy three times, more than any other club.

Brive, winners in 1997, were runners-up to Bath 12 months later while Perpignan, Colomiers, Biarritz and Stade Français have all been losing finalists.

But last season was a bitterly disappointing campaign for France. Much of the sparkle we come to expect from the stylish elite was dulled by a frenzied scramble for success in the Top 14. Domestic desires at the expense of a concerted focus on recapturing rugby's yellow jersey in a sport the French consider to be extra-specially theirs.

The French claim rugby union is their oldest team sport, 129 years and counting. It has also reflected major changes in French society, in itself an oddity as this essentially British bulldog battering ram of a game had to be adapted, moulded even, to suit the French character when it first crossed the Channel.

Some games are simply breath-taking in their fluid expression of talents, others so vicious that you almost consider the presence of a ball as optional.

The gifted France centre Denis Charvet, thespian as well as thoroughbred, was known to turn out occasionally in the Toulouse midfield still wearing stage make-up. Imagine the dressing-room reaction if you substitute Gloucester, Leicester or Leeds for Toulouse.

In chilling contrast, Gloucester's former France hooker Olivier Azam, just back from a nine-week ban for eye-gouging, has now been sidelined for 12 weeks after kicking Saracens and England captain, Steve Borthwick, in the face.

The days have gone when it was perfectly acceptable for players to emerge from the tunnel wearing bow ties, and carrying small salvers topped by champagne glasses. Colour, style, the burning desire to be different rather than dull.

Stade Français are the modern reminder of past eccentricities that illuminated a sport capable equally of glorious flair, pace and elan and chilling the bones with its physical excesses, violence and meanness of spirit.

Rugby French-style is as two-faced as Janus, yet remains irresistible.

This season, there's a new element affecting the French game's DNA – a raft of foreign internationals in their midst. From the trickle of earlier years – the likes of Rob Andrew, Richard Cockerill, Dan Luger and Richard Pool-Jones – French rugby is now armed with a greater than ever degree of outside rugby influence.

Haskell is one of nine England internationals involved in the Heineken Cup for French employers this season, and he's loving every minute. And while club rugby in England has enjoyed a steady climb in terms of crowds and success since the game went open, living the French experience is still unique.

Haskell said:"The passion of the supporters can be intimidating on your travels, there's a whole rugby environment into which you are thrust, on and off the pitch. Local pride, the colour and the bands, vast picnics, restaurants bursting at the seams.

"Nobody can touch us when it comes to staging the best rugby spectacle in France. But the most important game for Stade Français at Stade de France will be the Heineken Cup final next May. That's the game in front of an 80,000 crowd that we really want to play."

Haskell statistics ...and French sides' record in the Heineken Cup

*James Haskell

Born 2 April 1985, Windsor

Height 6ft 4in

Weight 17st 6lb

Club career

2002-09 Wasps

2009- Stade Français

International career

2007- England

Debut v Wales, March 2007; lost 27-18

*French sides have appeared in 10 of the 14 Heineken Cup finals. Toulouse have won three times (1996, 2003, 05), and Brive once (1997). There have been two all-French finals, Toulouse beating Perpignan (2003) and S Français (2005).

*French teams in the final

1996 Toulouse 21 Cardiff 18

Extra-time win gave Toulouse first Cup

1997 Brive 28 Leicester 9

Two Carrat tries helped Brive home

1998 Bath 19 Brive 18

Bath pipped the holders in Bordeaux

1999 Ulster 21 Colomiers 6

Ulster secure their first major title

2001 Leicester 34 St Francais 30

Last gasp win for Leicester in Paris

2003 Toulouse 22 Perpignan 17

First all-french final...in Dublin

2004 Wasps 27 Toulouse 20

Last-minute Wasps try secures match

2005 Toulouse 18 St Francais 12

Toulouse secure a third title

2006 Munster 23 Biarritz 19

Munster take Cup back to Ireland

2008 Munster 16 Toulouse 13

Toulouse were denied a fourth title