The Spectacular Transformation from Stopgap to Cornerstone
James Haskell's spectacular transition from stopgap to cornerstone
In those dark days after England were eliminated from their own World Cup by a David Pocock-inspired Australia, you would have got long odds that an English openside would be crowned man of the match in the first Test of the summer series against the Wallabies.Longer still that that man would be James Haskell.
Many assumed that his appearance in the dead rubber against Uruguay was to be in his last in an England shirt. He seemed a prime candidate to be swept away by a new broom in favour of new, shinier options. Even Eddie Jones referred to him as a temporary solution when he first included him in the Six Nations squad.
Yet the stopgap has become a cornerstone. In Brisbane he was sensational, making 18 tackles and three turnovers. One of those turnovers was straight from the Pocock playbook. Dean Mumm was tackled and in an instant Haskell had released and started jackalling. It brought a broad grin to the face of Tom Rees, who came through the ranks with Haskell with England and Wasps before injury prematurely ended his career.
“That performance at the weekend was as well I have seen him play,” Rees said. “He won a turnover at a crucial moment, where he made the tackle and immediately bounced up to get over the ball. He has been trying to do that for about six years, but that was the first time it has come off.” Both Rees and Haskell were groomed for greatness at Wasps. Haskell had the additional burden of constantly being compared to Lawrence Dallaglio in his early days. “That was unfair really,” Rees said. “Lol was a one-off and actually a pretty different player.”
The other distinguishing feature of Haskell’s early career was his penchant for self-publicity via his website, reinforced by his gregarious personality. The nickname ‘The Brand’ quickly stuck, and in an age where amateur values still trumped many professional ones it was not meant as a compliment.
“First impressions linger,” Rees said. “Second impressions reinforce those. He has always had that determination behind that. He is a joker, but he is also one of the most dedicated people you will care to meet. It is a slightly odd juxtaposition. He is not a serious guy but he is incredibly serious about rugby, and that sometimes gets lost.
“When someone like that is not right at the top it is a lot easier for people to throw stones. I think back to the 2011 World Cup, and I remember thinking him and Simon Shaw seemed to be the two guys who looked like they wanted to be there. His performances were lost in the big picture.”
Haskell also remains one of the very few English players to have sampled club rugby in several different cultures, first with Stade Français in 2009, then with the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan two years later, followed by a brief season with the Highlanders in New Zealand.
Again, those moves have been misinterpreted. “His motivations were purely to further himself as a rugby player by experiencing different environments culturally and from a playing perspective,” said Ollie Phillips, who played alongside him for two seasons in Paris. “He has been a victim of his own success because he is a larger-than-life character and can do things that some people will misconstrue as ‘brand Hask’.
They lose sight of how good a player he is and how devastating he can be on a rugby field. He is definitely the most misunderstood rugby player in the UK, potentially the world, but he is also in my opinion the most exceptional rugby player I have ever come across.”
It has taken nine and a bit years and the best part of 69 caps, but Haskell the player is finally breaking free of Haskell the caricature
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