‘Talk is cheap. If you aren’t playing you are easily forgotten’
James Haskell tells Matt Dickinson about the agony of missing out for England just as he was proving his doubters wrong
James Haskell appreciated the kind words from spectators who saw him pitch-side at Twickenham on Saturday. He enjoyed bumping into a couple of the England players. He felt better for receiving a text from Eddie Jones later that night remarking on his sharp three-piece suit.
“But it’s like when your first girlfriend says, ‘I love you and I’ll never be with anyone else.’ Haskell says. “Then a week later you break up and move. Talk is cheap.
“You learn pretty quickly that if you aren’t playing you are easily forgotten. It’s very nice, very flattering to be kept in the loop, but you see someone else pull on the shirt and it’s like everything you’ve done is gone, finished.”
Haskell pauses, filling a sofa in his Northamptonshire home with his Mr Incredible physique. “Thing is, you can’t feel grumpy about it,” he says. “For me, watching England beat South Africa was motivation to get fit. I was back doing my rehab first thing on Sunday morning. I’m getting closer.”
This is how it is with Jones’s England: for those like Haskell, exiled by injury, there is a desperation to be back on board because who knows where it may lead? To what fresh glories?
That eagerness is heightened by a sharp awareness that this is a team moving so fast, gathering such momentum, that to be out of it for too long is to risk missing the bus. In Haskell’s position, Tom Wood did well at No 7 at Twickenham on Saturday and Nathan Hughes came off the bench as a back-row debutant. But for injury, Sam Jones would have been in contention. Teimana Harrison, Sam Underhill — there are options.
Haskell talks of concentrating on his own recovery, and he can do so knowing that he has Jones’s undoubted admiration. From bit-part player under Stuart Lancaster during the World Cup debacle, he was integral to the grand slam in this year’s Six Nations Championship and that stunning transformation of fortunes under the new, straight-talking leader. He excelled in the opening two victories of the 3-0 whitewash on the tour to Australia in the summer — until, that is, he felt a stud pierce the sole of his boot and bury itself into his big toe.
How Haskell has improved under Jones
“That’s what I thought had happened,” he says with a grimace. “I was shouting at the doc for new boots. When he changed footwear and the excruciating pain remained, he realised that it was the toe that was the problem. An age-old injury had finally caught up with him.
A crack in a bone that he had tolerated, often through painkillers, now required significant surgery. “I saw the specialist when I got back and he said, ‘You’re going to be out for five, six months.’ I was head in hands.
“The surgeon put the fear of God into me. ‘If you don’t get this right it’s a career-ending injury.’ ”
He is on course to return for Wasps next month, to judge from his willingness to whip off his top for the photographer — not that he ever needs much persuasion to strip — this fitness fanatic is happy with his condition.
The shame is that the injury came arguably at the peak of his form, though Haskell protests at the idea that it has taken 31 years to see him at his very best.
“I get a bit taken aback when people come up and say, ‘Where did those games come from?’” he says. “One guy came up to me recently: ‘I used to think you were a prick but I liked what you did in Australia.’ ”
He looks bemused. “How do you react to that? Yes, I am a bit loud. I do stuff. But a prick? Based on what? A rugby pundit early on said about me, ‘I’ve never met James Haskell but from what I can see he’s a money-orientated a***hole.’ When he met me he was absolutely fine. So I understand I polarise people a bit.
“But if I was such a dick, such a nightmare, I am not sure I would have played around the world with [Michael] Cheika, Jamie Joseph, Dai Young, Eddie Jones. Not one of them strikes you as a person who would tolerate that.”
If Jones has brought out the best in Haskell, it is by making him feel trusted. For all his bravado — posing in “budgie-smugglers” recently on one of his frequent forays into social media — the Wasps flanker confesses to the self-doubt familiar to so many sportsmen.
“I am a confidence player through and through,” he says. “I have always struggled with self-confidence, if you can believe, with rugby, though not other areas. I have always used a sports psychologist since I was 17.
“I’ve always been more carrot than stick. With England, this time I wasn’t feeling like I was sitting on a knife-edge. I felt empowered. I didn’t feel like a couple of mistakes and I’d be out of the door.
“The coaches are very straight about what they want. You are treated like grown-ups. It’s fun but it’s hard. It’s direct. You don’t want to mess it up. You don’t want to see Eddie’s bad side. You do whatever you can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“I always wonder with football when managers say, ‘I didn’t see it.’ Where’s the accountability? You don’t want to be thrown under the bus but if I’ve messed up I’d expect, ‘What were you thinking?’ You get that from Eddie but there is also a lot of self-policing among the boys. We challenge each other. ‘You can’t do that.’ You can’t have a vanilla environment, people being drones. You need characters.”
Haskell has never lacked personality, though it has not always been to everyone’s liking. Setting up his own website aged 18 was seen as brash at the time. He was nicknamed “The Brand”. Now he argues, with some justification, that he was simply one step ahead.
“I have created a persona on social media because it amuses me,” he says. “Does it bear any resemblance to me in the rest of my life? Not really. It’s a business.
“I am a bit of a workaholic, bit of a loner, don’t go out a lot. Vices? I love technology. I love diggers. My dream is to have a digger. JCB are going to lend me a tractor to drive to training for a week.
“If I die now, I have pretty much had a go at everything. Corporate speaking, DJing, website, fitness books.”
Acting is a goal. Seriously? “If Vinnie Jones can get a Hollywood role there must be hope. If anyone needs a doorman or henchman No 5, I’m available.”
He says that people need only see the work he has done in recovery — from using electrodes to keep his muscles in shape when chair-bound, to sledge-pulling — to know how seriously he takes the day job. He still has big ambitions.
“I would love to play in the next World Cup [in Japan in 2019] but there are a couple of things which are more immediate: one is the Barbarians, the other is a Lions tour. It [Lions] separates the best of the best. The closest I got was 2009 but I didn’t have a good Six Nations and fell by the wayside.”
A return to his form of 2016 would surely put him right in contention.
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