England’s James Haskell enjoyed a stellar 2016 – becoming an integral cog in the new Eddie Jones machine that saw the side achieve a first Grand Slam in thirteen years and a whitewashing of Australia in their own back yard.
Despite a nasty toe injury that has seen the player ruled out until January at the earliest, Haskell is determined to get back up and running (quite literally) and put on a Wasps jersey once more:
“The injury’s going well, it’s taking its time, but it was always going to be the case with it being a delicate area and it was always going to take as long as it was going to take really, so it’s going well with the rehab and I’m looking to come back in the first weekend of January.”
Back running around! Got to love it https://t.co/ed67Ev6egk
— James Haskell (@jameshaskell) December 15, 2016
It’s not easy for any player having to sit on the sidelines and watch your team play, but Haskell is confident Wasps will learn from the last few minutes of their defeat to Connacht last weekend:
“There’ll be a lot of disappointment from the lads, they wanted to go over there and win. They’re so used to winning, but with some last minute decision making costing us the game that’ll be something for us to look at. Obviously there’s the issue with the referee making a mistake, but these things happen and the result is staying the same so we’ve just got to get on with it.”
It’s this kind of stoic attitude that has stood Haskell well in a revitalised England team, led by irreverant Australian Eddie Jones. Since taking over in January, the former Wallabies and Japan coach has taken the men in white from disaster at the tail end of 2015 to delirium this year.
“A change of coaching staff has meant a different approach and an entirely different mindset. It’s very difficult to compare one thing to another with such different contexts, but Eddie Jones has come in and had a chat with the guys, he’s captured the guys’ imagination and I think he’s a very ‘people person’; he’s a very focused person and he understands how to get the best out of players, in terms of speaking to individuals.
“He understands about creating that culture and I think winning breeds winning. We were lucky enough to get the first few wins under our belt and things have been very positive since.”
After a number of disappointing Six Nations campaigns since Haskell made his England debut, the national side was finally able to achieve what it had been seeking since 2003: the elusive Grand Slam. For Haskell, it meant a huge weight had been lifted.
“I think for a lot of people it was really important – myself included –to get those victories just because it’s something no one can ever take away from you. You can fall so short or so close a couple of times and it’s never good, so to finally get over the mark and get that monkey off our back was great and it just adds confidence to the environment. If you’re enjoying yourself at the same time it’s kind of a good mix.”
That enjoyment element has been an important factor for Haskell, and with the player being completely comfortable in England’s new set-up it has allowed him to flourish on the pitch like never before, with the flanker putting in some truly exceptional performances on the summer tour to Australia as England achieved a historical series whitewash Down Under.
“We went over there to obviously do that but it was only ever focussed on one game at a time. When we won the first test it was a very hostile environment, obviously an amazing place to go to but it was a very hostile reception. I don’t think we were extended that much respect, and it was great to go to a place and win where we’d only won a few times before.”
Yet although England continue to march on undefeated throughout 2016, their inspirational leader Dylan Hartley suffered further ignominy with a controversial red card against Leinster last weekend in a career often defined more by his indiscipline than his achievements. But Haskell will not hear a bad word said against his captain.
“I think a lot of the stick has been unfair, it’s just what people do. We just like to jump on the bandwagon and knife people because it makes column inches.
“Dylan is a very good captain, I think he creates a culture within the team of senior players taking responsibility. You’re on board the Dylan Hartley Express and if you’re not on it you’re left out of it and that’s the way we want it.
“He leads from the front, he’s very clear, he delivers the messages very well. He’s very professional and always looking to improve his own game, and he wants to improve the environment so that it empowers those around him. I think he’s a very good captain.”
As well as the captain’s role coming into question, Haskell himself has faced much scrutiny for playing at seven or openside in Eddie Jones’ England team when he has spent most of his career at blindside. It’s a topic that clearly frustrates him:
“I think people become obsessed with numbers on shirts, I think it’s been a long while since England had a seven who was: a) an out-and-out seven – whatever that means – and b) allowed to play in that capacity.
“George Smith and Richie McCaw were the last two sevens I saw who played off the back of the lineout, off the side of the scrum, given free reign to do what they want at the breakdown.
“As a backrow it’s about the balance, it’s about what you’re required to do. Billy Vunipola’s the out-and-out ball carrier, Robbo [Robshaw] does a bit of everything and we want a destructive defender at seven who can get stuck in at the breakdown but can also carry when it’s needed and that’s what I’m asked to do.
“I very rarely offer anything at the lineout as I’m always lifting, defending or stopping mauls. You know, people don’t see that kind of detail.
“With my old man I was brought up watching Neil Back and Peter Winterbottom. They’d fly off the back of lineouts, hit tens, but it doesn’t happen anymore because they’re standing so deep you couldn’t get near them anyway.”
As for the rest of the season, Haskell isn’t even contemplating playing for his country again or going one step further and giving any thought to the Lions. He is very much focussed on the here-and-now.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do to get back from this particular injury and getting back to play for Wasps is all I see at the moment.”
But the Wasps man has already achieved so much in a wonderful year for English rugby. With 2017 just around the corner, all England and Wasps supporters are looking forward to seeing their man back on the pitch once more, whatever the number on his back.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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