independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Haskell's world view brings sharper focus

James Haskell thought he may never play international rugby again after embarking on a three-year spell overseas

James Haskell, the man who thought that he would never play for England again as he spent three years globe-trotting, will pack down on the blindside flank against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday a wiser, more energised individual and with a far greater appreciation of what it means to represent his country.

He admits that it was a risk to cut himself off from the national team and head overseas, first to Stade Francais then onwards to Japan and Super 15 rugby in New Zealand.

"It was a gamble," Haskell said. "I am not going to be like the guy from 'The A-Team' and say that 'I love it when a plan comes together', because that's not the case at all. I had no idea what was going to happen.

"I knew that if I went away I would grow up and be enriched as a person. But, as an international player, I might never have been seen again."

He was, though, and to telling effect, first when stepping in for the injured Chris Robshaw for the 14-14 draw in the third Test against South Africa in June, and then last weekend when he came on early in the second half for the injured No 8 Ben Morgan against Scotland at Twickenham.

Unfamiliar

As he did last Saturday, Tom Wood will move across from the blindside to the middle slot against Ireland. It is an unfamiliar position for the Northampton flanker, but England are keen to retain those who finished so well against Scotland. What they may lose in specialist knowledge, they will gain in hard-edged presence.

Haskell is not seen as a great back-row strategist in the mould of Richard Hill or Lawrence Dallaglio; there are times when he needs to be pointed in the right direction.

But no one can deny his upbeat nature. He is a big kid at heart, aware of his profile as an international but an honest, down-to-earth bloke in love with his sport. The desire to play for England never dimmed but, if anything, it now burns ever more fiercely.

"The shirt on its own is a bit of cloth but you have to fill it with physicality and emotion," Haskell said. "You know that any moment it can be taken away.

"I spoke with the All Black guys in New Zealand when I played there (for the Highlanders). They said that it is a very short life expectancy in the All Blacks shirt, that they blood young guys early. When I came back (last summer), I found it was something that Stuart (Lancaster, the England head coach) was doing. Everyone gets a number when they are capped. No one can take that number (1,284 for Haskell) away. It's your place in the line of players ever to be capped. It gives you tradition."

Haskell is still only 27. In many ways he is associated with the old school that went to the World Cup in New Zealand and shuffled home in embarrassment. Lancaster made a point of clearing out the discredited regime of players and starting anew. Did Haskell fear that he would be tarred with the same brush?

"When new coaches come in, you are always looking down the barrel of not playing for England again," he said. "I had seen that guys were not involved. It was good to get to South Africa, good to get a chance for Stuart to see what I could offer.

"If Stuart could see I was passionate about England and that I would fight to get involved – well, it means so much to me. Everyone wants to be part of this squad. It's like the kid at school with the new toy. Everyone wants to play with it."

Haskell knows that he has to perform, and that reputation counts for little.

Justice

"Ben Foden has been one of England's top performers, but there wasn't space for him as guys in his position had been playing well," Haskell said. "When you do get the shirt, you want to do it justice and you play with renewed vigour. I can't afford to have a soft game, to have a game where there are no standout moments. I need to make an impact."

With the likes of Wasps team-mate Billy Vunipola and Worcester's Matt Kvesic pushing hard, Haskell is well aware that the next generation of back-row forwards is gathering at the gates. Haskell used to stand out as an extra-fit specimen. Now it is the norm, for the pursuit of excellence is a minimum requirement in this England set-up.

"In the past guys might have let things slip by, take a rest and think the job is done," Haskell said. "That's never the case here. I have just been flogged to death on the rowing machine with Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw.

"It's very easy when you're out of the England mix to be blase about it. I wasn't in the elite squad for Fiji or Australia but I walked round the ground, saw the fans, smelt the hot dogs and it was one of those special Twickenham Saturdays.

"This is what it is about. I knew I'd miss it if I didn't get back in. I'll keep playing for as long as they want me."

Haskell rattles away. He could talk for England. Above all, though, he has been articulate out where it matters. Dublin awaits. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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