James Haskell has a bucket list that would fill an industrial-scale skip. Off the field? Becoming fully fluent in French, a self-taught DJ and a black belt in jujitsu are among the England flanker’s ambitions.
Rugby-wise, he would like to tick off a Lions tour, a Grand Slam and winning a World Cup, and maybe eventually depart his club Wasps to return to the French league or Super Rugby in Australia.
“But I’ve got a big job to do here, keeping all these boys out of the shirt,” said Haskell as he reeled off another list, the one headed by the names of Tom Wood and Tom Croft as rival flankers for his England place against Ireland in next Sunday’s third leg of a possible Grand Slam.
Maybe it’s something about turning 30 the month after next. Or simply an innate restlessness to keep improving, as demonstrated in his stints with clubs in France, New Zealand and Japan. “I just fear that one day I’ll wake up at 75 having wasted everything,” he said – part poignant, part playfully flippant.
On Thursday night, with England training done for the week, the head coach Stuart Lancaster was left to weigh up selection between the back row of Haskell, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola that has seen the team through the past fortnight’s wins over Wales and Italy, and the claims of the normally first-choice blindside flanker Wood, who is returning to fitness after an ankle injury, and the British Lion Croft, who replaced Haskell in the second half of the Italian match last weekend.
Haskell’s Thursday night was spent with his girlfriend Chloe Madeley at Yarico, a London musical produced by Jodie Kidd, and hobnobbing with some reality TV stars. On Friday morning the couple were snapped by paparazzi on the way to the gym. Then he had blogs to write and a video to shoot for his fitness brand.
“So I never worry about getting caught up in it,” said Haskell, when asked whether the Grand Slam buzz might get too much, bearing in mind he has been part of England’s two most recent last-match failures, in Ireland in 2011 and Wales in 2013. They have completed just one Slam in the last two decades, in fact: in the glory, glory year of 2003.
“The squad has moved on to a different place now,” Haskell said. “With Stuart [Lancaster] coming in and his own approach – that bottom-up management making sure everything is spot-on and there are the highest standards – we have a game plan that is very clear and concise and it suits the players that are playing in it. That is the difference.”
There are further reasons why Haskell cannot envisage a humiliating collapse such as the 24-8 thrashing England sustained in Dublin four years ago. (Did they really start with Shontayne Hape and Matt Banahan as the centres opposite Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll in 2011?).
Today’s England have plenty of positive video clips to pore over in the “rat cave” – the players’ nickname for the computer analysis room at the team base in Surrey. Under Lancaster since January 2012, England have won all three meetings with Ireland, with only one try conceded, to Rob Kearney at Twickenham last year.
“I don’t think there’s any way to guarantee locking down any team,” Haskell pointed out. “But if England can adjust the mistakes in defence, keep that level we had in the second half against Italy and in that second half against Wales, invariably that will stop tries coming.
“Ireland are on nine unbeaten games in a row – they are looking to do something special, and we want to do something special too in the Six Nations,” he added. “Both of those go into a melting pot to make a huge encounter.”
With the England captain Robshaw on the openside of the England scrum, and tail-gunning in the line-out on the opposition throw, Haskell has been occupying a different role to the one he has for Wasps. “England’s defence takes me out of the front-line hitting for a couple of phases, but you’ve got to do that for the team,” he said.
The team collectively have scored eight tries to four in this Six Nations Championship while, at the same time, clocking up a slightly perturbing 36 missed tackles.
“You’ll always have mistakes,” Haskell said, “but the boys going into the Ireland game will want to eradicate that. Defence sets the tone for everything – you score tries from your defence.”
As for that bucket list, the DJ-ing fits with Haskell’s long-held belief in music to set a mood. He has dropped Cher’s ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ from the playlist – well, it hardly suits the don’t-look-back mantra and anyway he is more into “feel-good house kind of stuff” now.
“I promise never to be a wedding singer, as in: ‘The buffet is ready… now for ‘I’m Too Sexy’. I love Ibiza and Vegas, and it’s not really my personality to stand at the front of a room, with all the attention-seeking, dropping big tunes.
“But imagine you go to Ireland and wake up on the morning of the match and you’re not feeling great – or on another day you wake up and feel amazing. You need consistency.
“I’ve always got good music I want to listen to, so it doesn’t matter where I am, how I feel, what we’re doing, who we’re playing, I feel consistent.”