James Haskell: 'France has made me into a new player'

James Haskell put his England career at risk when he crossed the Channel but, Chris Hewett hears, change has made him more relaxed

Saturday 13 February 2010 01:00
James Haskell is the subject of an increasingly acrimonious club versus country row
James Haskell is the subject of an increasingly acrimonious club versus country row

"No one knows me, no one notices me and I can't speak to anyone because my French is so dodgy." So says James Haskell, who just happens to be the best-known and most noticeable English rugby player of the post-2003 generation, with the obvious exception of his old club-mate Danny Cipriani.

As he can talk the hind legs off an entire drove of donkeys into the bargain – by comparison, Austin Healey was a trappist – his decision to quit the familiarity of London for the anonymity of Paris has paid handsome dividends, not least in respect of his vocal cords.

Yet all this may be about to change. England visit the French capital in precisely five weeks' time for the concluding match of the Six Nations Championship, and if Haskell catches the eye as frequently under the night sky of Saint-Denis as he did in the chill murk of Twickenham last weekend, he can kiss goodbye to the quiet life. He might as well become a boulevardier and have done with it.

By putting two very different tries past Wales last Saturday – the first an arm-wrestler's score from a distance most easily measured in millimetres, the second infinitely more stylish and from much further out – he pocketed the man-of-the-match plaudits, as dispensed by the former England hooker Brian Moore, another of life's talkative sorts who sees silence as nothing more than a vacuum to be filled. "He hasn't always been my favourite player," Moore pronounced from the commentary box. It was quite a moment. As the French know better than most, the snarly old pitbull from Harlequins is not exactly world famous for letting bygones be bygones.

In actual fact, Haskell saw precious little of the ball at Twickenham – so little, indeed, that the touchdowns accounted for around 50 per cent of his work in possession. Did this make him the rugby equivalent of a schoolboy goalhanger? His response to the question is sharp and to the point: "I hit 40 rucks, I'll have you know." He might have added that in most of those 40 rucks, he made a difference. The more public parts of his game – an important early tackle on Martyn Williams, an equally vital hit on Lee Byrne after the interval, his smashing of Andrew Powell into the middle of March from a Welsh restart, the late turnover on Jamie Roberts that presented Jonny Wilkinson with another shot at goal, the tries at the end of each half – may have been deeply satisfying, but no more so than the high-octane, hard-edged, muscular clearing-out job he performed in and around the tackle area.

Haskell freely accepts that it was no more than he needed. England may be struggling for numbers at loose-head prop and lock, but they have high-class loose forwards coming out of their cauliflower ears. Only 20 months ago, the man from Windsor was mixing it with the All Blacks in Auckland and Christchurch alongside Tom Rees, his fellow flanker at Wasps, and Luke Narraway, the No 8 from Gloucester. By common consent, they were by some distance the pick of a desperately off-colour bunch of red roses. Yet by the end of last year's Six Nations, injury and poor form had done for each and every one of them.

"That tour to New Zealand in 2008 seems a long time ago," Haskell agrees. "But that's the way of it now. There is such intense competition for places in the back-row department that a single thing, either in training or in a game, can change things. When people talk about me having a chance to nail the shirt, I respond by saying that it starts afresh with every match. Yes, I had a decent day against Wales, but if my form drops this weekend, who knows what will happen?"

Being a far-sighted, ambitious sort of chap, Haskell swapped capital cities because he felt he knew precisely what would happen if he committed himself heart and soul to Wasps, the club he grew up dreaming of representing, on a long-term basis. "If it wasn't for Wasps, I wouldn't be where I am now," he says. "I love the club, always will. I was around the place every week of the year from the age of 15, I knew all the players, from the Dallaglios down, and I was right in the middle of it from a pretty young age.

"Because of all that familiarity, I allowed myself to be caught up in the trap of trying to be the best at everything. There would be extra this and extra that, the regular visits to Margot Wells [the renowned sprint coach who helped propel her husband Allan towards an Olympic gold-silver double in 1980], all the additional bits and bobs. Everything I could possibly do to add something to my game, I was doing. I think I became too tied into it, especially as Wasps played such a structured game and wanted me to do very specific things. In the end, I realised it was all I knew.

"By moving to Stade Français, I opened myself up to change on every level. I took my old way of playing to Paris, but as no one else was on the same wavelength it didn't work. It was for me to do something different, rather than stick with the things I'd been good at doing in the Premiership – the ball-carrying, the tackling, the competing for the ball on the floor. I know now that it's what I needed: a second chance, an opportunity to remove myself from the spotlight and earn my spurs all over again. They didn't know me, I didn't know them. It was the way I wanted it.

"As a result, I'm more relaxed about my rugby. Everything seems to have been simplified somehow. The back-row talent at the club is second to none: Sergio Parisse, Mauro Bergamasco, Juan Leguizamon ... these are seriously good players. I'm just doing my best to fit in, bringing what I bring and hoping it's good enough to get me selected. I travelled in the knowledge that such moves don't work for everyone, and that if things didn't work out for me, I'd disappear into the ether as far as England were concerned. So far, things have turned out pretty well."

While it would be wrong to suggest that all hell broke loose when Haskell confirmed his intention to cross the water, he certainly found a few hounds of Hades snapping at his heels. He was not the only player heading for France at the time – far from it – but when Martin Johnson, the England manager, and Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, went public with their displeasure, his was the name most often on their lips. Partly, it was to do with his youth: at 24, he had at least two World Cups in him, possibly three. Not even a hard case like Johnson could begrudge the Toulon-bound Jonny Wilkinson a spell on the Riviera after his years of fruitless hard yakka on Tyneside, especially as the great goal-kicker had turned 30. Haskell, he felt, was a different issue.

But equally, there was the flanker's confident streak, which bordered on the brazen. Haskell has never been backwards in coming forwards on the opinion front – he would measure a full Force 12 on any verbal equivalent of the Beaufort Scale – and he argued his case with his customary gusto. Predictably, this tweaked the tail of the England hierarchy, and when they left him out of their Elite Player Squad in July, his immediate prospects looked less than bright.

Injuries, great swathes of them, resulted in a reprieve and he capitalised with some strong performances off the back of the scrum during the autumn series. Another slice of orthopaedic misfortune, this time affecting his great rival Tom Croft, pretty much guaranteed him his place against Wales, and again he made the most of it. "You need a bit of luck in this game," he acknowledges.

When Croft, the elastically athletic Leicester forward, returns to the mix, the fun and games will resume in earnest. In the past, this would have driven an individual as nakedly ambitious as Haskell a long way up the nearest wall. Now? "Life is more tranquil," he says. "Rugby moves so quickly, and sometimes things don't go well. If I've learnt anything in Paris, it's that there's no value in getting het up about it."

Cipriani rejected by ex-England captain

*Will Carling has scrapped plans to manage Danny Cipriani because he believes the Wasps fly-half is not passionate enough about playing for England.

Carling has concluded the 22-year-old's desire to reclaim the England No 10 jersey "is not as strong as it needs to be". Carling said: "I have spent the last six weeks trying to focus Danny and, without laying the blame at anyone's door, the main reason that I have decided not to go ahead is that I do not believe that Danny's focus is on playing for England. Rightly or wrongly, I have concluded that his desire to earn that shirt is not as strong as I want it to be and as strong as it needs to be."

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