Eddie Jones is like a nuclear bomb
James Haskell: Eddie Jones is like a nuclear bomb waiting to go off
Wasps captain has turned around a season that began like a car crash for the flanker and England during a disastrous World Cup and is relishing taking on Saracens in the European Champions Cup semi-final
James Haskell has a stitched-up lower lip, lined with dried blood, but his ability to talk openly remains unchecked. The England flanker, who captains Wasps against Saracens in the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup on Saturday, is on a run of victories – and facial stitches – which defines the way his career has been transformed this year.
The season began like a car crash for Haskell and England, during a calamitous World Cup, but everything seems different now. After winning the Grand Slam England have three clubs in the last four of Europe’s premier club competition. For Haskell, Wasps’ success has been matched by him moving from a squad player to Eddie Jones’ first-choice openside flanker throughout the Six Nations.
“I’ve got 10 stitches in my lip,” he says, cheerfully. “It’s from the last European game [when Wasps beat Exeter in a thrilling quarter-final] and I got it bashed in training this morning. I’ve had 30 stitches in the last six weeks. I guess tackling with your face is not a good move.”
Haskell is smart enough to realise how much he owes the two coaches who have helped him most. He praises Dai Young, at Wasps and the way he held the club together when, four years ago, near-bankruptcy meant Haskell had to threaten physical force in order to get paid. But, first, Haskell describes the positive impact of England’s new coach.
“I respect and fear him in equal measure because you just don’t know,” Haskell says of Jones. “He’s got the liability to absolutely go mad. You hear all the stories but he’s then got the ability to be sensible and understanding and build your confidence and set a fantastic tone.”
Haskell hesitates when asked if he has seen Jones’ “volcanic” persona. “We didn’t see it that often but I do joke with him. I said to him that it’s like a nuclear bomb and you’re waiting for it to go off. You have to handle it with care because is he going to go?
You hear the stories of the ruthless things he says. There was one occasion where we did a walk-through and there were mistakes and I thought: ‘This is where he’s going to go … ’ He was brilliant actually but it’s only a matter of time [before Jones erupts] because even with the best teams, like the All Blacks, things go wrong. You’ve just got to understand he’s interested in winning and getting the best team.
“He’s extremely clever and hard–working. Fundamentally he’s a lovely guy who knows exactly what he’s doing 99.9% of the time. He knows how to talk to individuals and see which player needs the carrot or stick. Eddie understood we didn’t have a bad team – just that we were a little lost in terms of a game plan and selection. He gave us trust.”
Jones has handled Haskell’s brash character deftly. The contrast with the way in which Haskell was managed in the past is striking. “The World Cup was difficult. I got 10 minutes against Wales and 60 minutes against Uruguay when the big stuff was already done. It was bitterly disappointing. So to fight my way back into the England camp after so many people wrote me off? I’ve been written off more times than Jimmy Carr’s tax returns – first one out the door. So it was enjoyable to get back in and win with England. Our first grand slam in 13 years.
“I went into an environment where I really felt respected for the first time. People talked to me like an adult, they wanted my opinion and that gave me the confidence to play. I felt empowered. I didn’t feel I was walking a tightrope where, after one mistake, I’d be slung straight out. You don’t expect a golden ticket but you want the benefit of more than one game.”
Haskell did not feel the same trust with England’s World Cup coaches – led by Stuart Lancaster. “I was never that comfortable. I’d get one game and have a man of the match performance, or near enough and be dropped the next week. They would say: ‘We never drop a man after a really good game’ and I’d say: ‘What happened there? With me?’ They’d say: ‘Fair point but …’
I don’t think they understood how to get the best out of me. They wanted me to keep everyone amused and bring that team camaraderie. And then they’d want to shut me up and lock me away when it didn’t suit.”
Beneath Haskell’s confident facade his belief was being eroded. “It eats away at you – 100%. I’ve always been confident in my rugby ability but with England I had to adjust my behaviour. My friend said to me: ‘Whenever you come back you’re a different person because you’re trying to be someone you’re not.’
“ I’d go into meetings and be the brunt of the joke time and time again. You’re the easy target and end up doing the banter again and everything is back on their terms. You can take the piss out of a bloke but it was like I was used as a tool to amuse everyone and not really given respect.”
Could he talk to Lancaster and stress that, beneath the comic persona, he wanted to be taken seriously? “No. The biggest thing now is accessibility and being able to sit down with someone and say: ‘I want to improve my game in these areas so how am I going to do it?’
I didn’t feel I had that with my old England coaches. No one said: ‘This is what you did well … or not so well. Here’s a drill. Go work on it.’ Eddie and the coaches now give me confidence to go out and play. They know I care.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Stuart and what he did for English rugby. Fundamentally he’s a lovely guy. I just think you have coaches who are task-focused or people-focused. He was very focused on the task. Having a coach now who is people-focused and task-focused is key. Eddie can gauge and interact with players. You need that rapport.”
Haskell took flak at the World Cup. He walked on to the Twickenham pitch carrying a sponsor’s camera during the opening ceremony and just before England played Fiji. Haskell was a squad member that day but his actions were seen as a symbol of all that was wrong with England.
Neil Back, who played in Haskell’s position when England won the 2003 World Cup, was scathing on Twitter. Haskell has never been afraid of confrontation and he responded with numerous tweets to Back. “I was never going to win that battle because he’s a World Cup winner,” Haskell says, shrugging. “Obviously we’ve got trial by social media. I put a comment out here and everyone goes: ‘How dare you? You’re not a World Cup winner blah-blah-blah.’ Hopefully you will consider it a bit more deeply.
“For me not being involved in the opening ceremony and recording that moment – for life – in no way detracts from the team or me. His argument was I should be focused. Focusing on what? The stand? That’s rubbish. To talk about self-promotion with that video when this bloke [Back] has written a book called The Death of Rugby? He’s selling it to make money and tweeting without copying someone in is a snide way of doing it. If someone said that to you in person you would shout them down.
“After we won the Six Nations I posted a picture of me and Chris Robshaw. [Back] retweeted it without copying me in and said: ‘Yeah, fair play, but it’s not like beating a southern hemisphere side or winning a World Cup.’ What would you like us to do? Not celebrate it or say: ‘Me and Chris played really well but we’re not good enough for the rest of international rugby?’ It was another attention-seeking device, another negative opinion.”
He responded differently to the challenge of George Smith, one of the world’s great openside flankers, arriving at Wasps from Australia. “George has helped me a lot. He’s a quiet dude but in his interview with the club he said: ‘I’m coming here to be an asset rather than a threat.’ I was thinking: ‘You’re fucking threatening my career – get away.’”
Haskell bursts out laughing. “I had guys chirping away. Paul Sackey [his former Wasps team-mate] said: ‘You’re signing George Smith? Good luck with that, mate. You ain’t gonna play.’ But I emailed George and said: ‘It’s great you’re coming over and I’m looking forward to playing with you. If you need anything just give me a shout.’ I was excited. I felt I could learn from George and it would be good for me.
When he’s been captain he’s been fantastic. He’s got a better winning record than me. He’s coming for my job. We’ve got a Caesar and Brutus thing going on.”
There is more laughter but Haskell becomes serious when considering that Wasps are now in position to sign players like Smith. He remembers how, in 2012, the club just avoided relegation and were almost wound up. “That was hell. Sometimes we didn’t get paid. We were bottom of the table and Tom Varndell kept us up with that last-ditch tackle on [Bath’s] Sam Vesty. It was the first tackle Varndell ever made!
He kept us up but we had no owner and a guy came in. He bought us time before [the new owner] Derek Richardson arrived. Derek moved us to Coventry and it’s been incredible. The club are flying.”
When his monthly salary often failed to arrive on time in 2012 did Haskell, who has supported Wasps since he was 13, believe the club were about to disappear? “Absolutely. We were just days away from going under, from imploding. I said: ‘Listen, I want my money now.’ I said it with a smile . I sorted it.
“So much credit must go to Dai Young. He kept us going even when his own position was under threat. Dai has been brilliant for me. If we win the European Cup we might get a third smile out of him in four years.”
There will be few jokes when Wasps play Saracens. Haskell, who came off the bench to replace Lawrence Dallaglio when Wasps won the Heineken Cup in 2007, has a clear idea what his team need to do to make another European final. “You have to take it to Saracens and physically impose yourselves but Sarries are very proud. It’s going to be some battle."
It’s the kind of battle that appeals to Haskell and, feeling more rejuvenated than battered, he can imagine a European triumph for his once impoverished club – and an even grander personal objective. “The dream is to finish with another World Cup. I’ll be 34 in 2019. It’s 100% feasible. Look at those All Black boys – some played their best rugby in their 30s. If I can get a favourable wind and keep playing for England it’s definitely possible. That’s the dream. I’ve been to two World Cups and I’d like to have a decent third one."
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