Wasps' James Haskell enjoys fresh lease of life
Despite spending England’s third test win watching from the sidelines with his injured foot in a moon boot, James Haskell’s stock has risen inexorably over the course of the last month.
It could be argued that he has simply continued the upward curve which began when Eddie Jones replaced Stuart Lancaster at the helm of the England team, after the red rose had become the first World Cup hosts to fail to negotiate the pool stages in the autumn.
Haskell was a bit-part player under Lancaster’s previous England regime despite being one of the few survivors from the ill-fated 2011 World Cup campaign under Martin Johnson. However, these connections with the past seemed to leave a residue of mistrust, which when combined with the distance brought by periods playing in France, Japan and New Zealand made him, in his own words, something of an England outsider.
Jones’ arrival changed all that. Tom Wood disappeared from the squad, the much-maligned Chris Robshaw moved to the blindside with great success and Haskell was handed the No.7 shirt, which had been England’s long-standing Achilles heel.
Since then, he has been an integral part of his country’s first Grand Slam since 2003, plus a history-making series win in Australia during which he produced consecutive man-of-the-match displays. Haskell tackled himself to a standstill - making a mind-blowing 25 in the second test win alone - and scrapped on the ground and in the loose to such good effect that the much-vaunted Aussie breakaway trio were totally nullified.
Most importantly, he now looks like a man who feels like he belongs. Jones’ consummate man-management skills have tuned to Haskell’s wavelength, drawn him into the heart of the team and as a result turned him into an invaluable and possibly even indispensable part of the England line-up.
There is another aspect to consider here, which Aussie rugby in the light of its three-nil demolition by the old enemy, may well label as the ‘Alas Smith and Jones factor.’
At this point last season, not even the most optimistic Wasps fan could have predicted the impact George
Smith’s signing would have on their club. While younger players might have anticipated they would pick up a few nuggets from the Wallaby legend, it seemed fanciful to suggest that a man with over 60 England caps to his name would make many gains from the association, but undoubtedly this has been the case. In short, while it is nine years since Haskell won his first cap, a one-season association with the Aussie duo has created a situation where his best years of international rugby now look to be ahead of him.
From a Wasps perspective, this thought further reinforces how much Smith will be missed and while replacing his off-the-field impact will be difficult, the next recipient of Wasps’ No.7 shirt also has huge boots to fill.
Despite battling the calls of Father Time (“I prefer experienced to old, mate” as George smilingly put it) the former Australian skipper remains simply top-notch. His high tackle count, unerring ability to always be in the right place at the right time and legendary breakdown skills combined with sublime footballing ability with both feet and hands to make him the role model No.7.
Wasps’ boss Dai Young has a very capable replacement extremely close to home, since his 24-year-old son Thomas progressed in leaps-and-bounds last year. While Smith‘s self-effacing comment: “he was a pretty good player before I got here” undoubtedly has plenty of foundation, Young jnr was always quick to note the help he received from the head tutor of Wasps back-row finishing school.
Dai has, however, always sought two top performers for each jersey and there is little doubt that Steffon Armitage was his preferred (and probable) Smith replacement, before Derek Richardson’s wallet was run over by a king-sized Securicor van from Pau. Given that the clock to the new season is ticking, it must therefore be increasingly likely that Haskell will reprise his England role at club level and share the No.7 shirt with Thomas in the Premiership and Europe, while England U.20 World Cup winner Jack Willis features in the LV=Cup.
This leaves Sam Jones and the promising Alex Rieder, who made a massive impression on debut at Northampton in February, to cover the blindside flank, with Nathan Hughes and Guy Thompson at No.8. If international calls for Haskell and Hughes plus intrusion by injury leaves this looking a little on the thin side, it is then entirely possible that Young will move into the loan market mid-season, or even use Ashley Johnson as back row cover.
Finally, many also believe that Wasps fluid playing style is better suited to having a link player at openside than an all-action destroyer like Haskell. However, they overlook the fact that should the England man’s star continue to rise at its current pace, he will combine the handling skills of Magic Johnson with the running lines of Jason Robinson by Christmas, so there will be little cause for concern!
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