After a recent international resurgence and a glorious summer spent with the Lions, England international James Haskell could have been forgiven for throwing his toys out of the pram at his exclusion from Eddie Jones’ squad for the Autumn internationals.
His reaction when I asked him about it couldn’t have been more different.
“I think it’s been a good kick up the backside,” Haskell admitted.
“It’s been a good motivator for me because I’m desperate to get back in the mix for England – it’s something that I love doing.”
Haskell speaks like he plays, direct and to the point.
His answers to my questions are intelligent and emotive and give me a good feel of a man whose pride must have taken a dent recently, but who refuses to let that get the better of him.
“As a player you learn pretty early on how to compartmentalise and how to deal with different things,” Haskell continues.
“Yeah we’re human and we have moments where it’s stressful and you get a bit down but then you’ve got to bounce back very quickly because you’ve got the next task, the next challenge to get on with. Thats all I’ve ever done with it.”
2017 has been an interesting year for Haskell, who returned from injury to help England win the Six Nations, helped Wasps get to the Premiership final and then eventually got called up to the British and Irish Lions squad as they secured a draw out in New Zealand.
“In terms of an experience and a rugby experience it [the Lions tour] is second to none. Going out there and bonding with a whole load of the lads, making friends for life and playing in a rugby heartland – it was an incredible experience.”
As incredible as it was, being the true competitor that he is, Haskell still harbours disappointments from the tour.
“I always try to operate with no excuses in my life, so it would have been great to have been named straight away but that wasn’t the case.
“But I think to get any opportunity to go on the Lions tour and be able to turn round and say: ‘do you know what? I made it, I made it on to the Lions tour’ is pretty special.
“Of course I was happy to go on the tour but once you’re on the tour you want to get into the test side. Thats kind of what it was all about.”
But all of his successes this year were very close to not materialising at all, as Haskell struggled to recover from a toe injury he sustained while playing for England in the summer of 2016.
This injury, he revealed, was potentially career ending.
“I honestly never thought I was going to play again towards the end of that injury,” Haskell said. “If it wasn’t for some unbelievable boots from Under Armour I probably would be struggling.
“I didn’t overstate it at the time, it was obviously some way to go but it [the injury] was very frustrating.
“You really stare down the barrel when things aren’t going well and you’re struggling. You then have to make a decision and now I savour every moment I get to play.”
Haskell is as philosophical about that injury as he was when I asked him about being dropped. He comes across as someone that – in the final few years of his career – knows how fleeting the life of a professional sportsman can be, and is determined to enjoy what time he has left.
One chapter of his career that he definitely did not enjoy was England’s World Cup campaign in 2015. England failed to make it out of their group and the entire team and coaching staff were hung out to dry by virtually every person in the country.
Haskell, while admitting that the players drastically underperformed, told me that he thought the media coverage of that side was ridiculous.
“People like to throw stones, full stop. Thats what they want to do, build people up to smash people down.
“It’s one of those things,” He continued. “I’ve realised from the outside looking in that people talk a lot of crap about stuff they don’t know and they make up a lot of stuff because they once played rugby and they think they’re relevant but the fact of the matter is, you never know till you’re in the inside and nobody on the inside gives you a straight answer because they can’t.”
Haskell began to get very animated when discussing this and it’s easy to understand why.
As he talks, there is another noticeable twinge of dented pride at the fact that the squad didn’t perform on the biggest platform.
“I think obviously there was a huge outcry about it and at the time we genuinely believed we could win it and we could go on and perform. But the reason why the reality checks needed to happen was that we hadn’t consistently beaten a southern hemisphere side. We hadn’t done that and everyone did what they always do in the UK and went mental about saying ‘yeah we can win’ and then when we didn’t, everyone lost their shit and it’s like well what made you think we were going to win it anyway?
“We, as players, thought we could but when you look at it in the cold light of day what made you [the media and public] think that? What, because we beat New Zealand once?
“The one thing that I will say is that nobody appreciated how hard the boys worked and how hard the coaching staff worked. It was bullshit really that every person under the sun came out and said England weren’t fit enough – we were the fittest we’ve ever been!”
We discussed if he thought that the media pressure actively had an impact on the team and Haskell, in keeping with his ‘no excuses’ mantra, refused to acknowledge their impact.
“Luckily you’re insulated from it, some lads read the press but others don’t.
“People hype it up at the World Cup but the boys were insulated from it quite a bit so we didn’t really have to deal with it. So I don’t think that really had anything to do with it we just didn’t perform as we wanted to.
“You only start feeling the pressure when the wheels start coming off. After that Australia game all the vultures are out and everyone’s coming to turn up and have a go. So that’s the only time really that you come under quite a lot of pressure.”
Since those dark days, England have come a long way and Haskell has been right at the forefront of the resurgence.
He was in arguably the form of his life as England went on an amazing unbeaten run that started in that final group game against Uruguay at the World Cup and lasted until the final game of this year’s Six Nations.
His finest moment was being named man of the series in England’s first ever series win on Australian soil as they whitewashed their hosts 3-0.
Haskell only played two games that series due to the toe injury he sustained and was still given the award – a testament to the quality of his performances in those first two games.
Despite that, Haskell’s fondest memory of the unbeaten run was England’s grandslam victory over France.
In true Haskell style, he marked the win with a social media post of himself and Chris Robshaw holding up jerseys with the number 6½ on the back in response to Jones’ comments about the England flankers during the 2015 World Cup.
“I arranged for them to be sorted out those shirts,” He recalled with a laugh. “Im never one to shy away from a bit of fun.
“I was carrying them around and if we lost they’d never have seen the light of day, so the only people that knew about them were me and the kit man.
“If the wheels had come off and we’d lost they would have been burned and no-one would have ever seen them.”
A recurrence of the toe injury he suffered in Australia in 2016 delayed Haskell’s start to this season, and he has struggled for form since his return.
As predicted he is refusing to let this get him down and he remains optimistic for the future – both for England and for himself
“Thats professional sport for you, one minute you have highs then you have lows, one minute you’re the news the next minute you’re old news – thats the way it goes,” Haskell said, continuing his philosophical stance on his career so far.
“England have been in transition a lot of the time with what they were doing. Obviously I’ve had a few England coaches and its progressively changed. For a long time It was unsettled, but its in a great place now.
“Ive been lucky enough to play with good coaches all around the world, but I think one of the coaches that got the best out of me for a period of time was Eddie [Jones] and his coaching team of [Steve] Borthwick [Paul] Gustard and [Neil] Hatley, I’ve really enjoyed that most recently.”
Far from trying to win Eddie Jones over with his words – I’m not sure that the Australian is a huge follower of the Sports Gazette for a start – Haskell is under no illusions that a recall will only come if his performances return to their previous high standard.
“I’m only 32, Im still in my prime – I just have to put in performances that nobody can argue with.”
Will we see him in an England shirt come Japan in 2019? One thing is for certain is that Haskell won’t go down without a fight.
“I’m going to be playing on til 2019. Definitely.”
Feature photo credit: James Haskell