The Perfect Six and Half’s
Haskell and Chris Robshaw, another seasoned flanker written off by many, were sick of coming second. Now, battered, bruised but smiling, they finally have a triumph to savour
Two hours after the final whistle, James Haskell had finally stopped bleeding. He had been cut so much that he could have featured in last week’s budget. He had three small nicks on his forehead, a couple more underneath his right eye, and a large, long gash along his nose, this last bound, now, by a set of butterfly stitches which added a flash of bright white to his rainbow array of bruises, purple, black, and blue. Beneath it all, he was sporting a broad smile.
“I know, I’m not getting any better looking,” he said, “but I’ll take that to win a grand slam.” The blow to the nose had come in the second minute of the match so he spent most of the game covered in blood. “But no one was going to keep me off that field.”
Haskell’s partners each had their own wounds. Billly Vunipola’s left eye had turned entirely scarlet, the pupil flushed with blood. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” Vunipola said. He might have been right, because it could not have looked any worse.
The two backrows had been in some scrap and for all the injuries they suffered, it was the Englishmen who won. Vunipola was man of the match, Haskell made more tackles than anybody on either side and Chris Robshaw was remorselessly excellent.
He gave so much of himself that by the end, Eddie Jones said, he could hardly stand. Robshaw and Haskell seemed to be driven men, and played with furious intensity. Two months or so ago, when Jones brought this team together for their first training sessions, the senior players gathered for what they described as “a leadership meeting”. They took turns to talk about what was going to motivate them in the weeks and months ahead. “Dylan Hartley and I looked at each other,” Haskell recalled, “and we said it wasn’t just good enough playing for England, we wanted to win something.”
Haskell, Robshaw and the rest had long since grown sick of coming second.
Two days before the match, it looked as though Haskell would not be able to play. He was suffering with bad back spasms, which started on Thursday morning. “I was in hell,” he said. “I am not going to lie to you there was a moment where I was pretty dark, on Thursday and Friday."
He spent most of the final 48 hours before kick-off getting medical treatment. “I’ve had so many massages I’ve probably lost a couple of inches in height.” He even took a trip up to London to see a special physiotherapist at 10.30pm. Jones kept popping his head in to say: “Mate, we need you, you are playing.” Haskell said back: “All right, boss.” He probably did not need the encouragement. In the end, he says, his adrenaline carried him through.
Haskell is 30, and, well as he is playing, he knows he may not have many caps left in him. “There are people near the end of their career,” he said, “people who’ve been written off.” He seemed to have himself in mind. And it is true he has had plenty of criticism. Sometimes, it has to be said, with good reason.
It was not long ago Haskell was swanning around England’s World Cup with a video camera, shooting sponsored footage for his social media accounts. It wasn’t a good look. “Who’s that pillock?” asked one England fan as Haskell walked into Twickenham for their match against Fiji.
But Jones has embraced that side of Haskell, and encouraged him to use it to help bind the team on and off the field. It was Haskell who was clapping his hands and bellowing at the backs when England were buckling under the pressure in the second half. And it was Haskell, along with Owen Farrell, who gave the team their orders for the final few minutes of the match, after Hartley was knocked out cold.
Before the game, Haskell had asked England’s kitman to print up a couple of T-shirts marked “six-and-a-half” for him and Robshaw to wear after the match. He wanted to make the point, “because we’ve both been drilled for not being No7s”. One of those very people who “drilled” Robshaw was, of course, Jones himself.
These days he is full of praise. “Did you see him at the end?” asked Jones. “He was busted at the end, absolutely busted. The last tackle he made, we kick-chased to the corner, Owen Farrell made the tackle and he was the next bloke in; he could barely pick up his feet. That’s the desire of that guy to be better.”
Like their coach, the team holds Robshaw in high esteem. “He’s been through a lot, undeservedly in my opinion,” said George Ford. “He is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable bloke and he has battled through a lot of adversity in the last six months,” added Danny Care.
Haskell agreed: “Robbo has had a tough time. A lot of people have said nasty things about him when he’s a guy who has always worn his heart on his sleeve.” Robshaw, Haskell and the rest have had plenty of low moments in the England team. They had earned this high, and Haskell was right to relish it.
“We won a grand slam,” he said, “and no one can ever, ever, ever take that away from us.”