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Changed Haskell finds perfect Paris match

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Tom Fordyce | 17:32 UK time, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

James Haskell has a rather surprising revelation to make: in the last few seconds before running out for big matches, he likes to listen to Michael Bublé.

A cheesy Canadian crooner might not seem like the obvious choice for a granite-jawed international rugby player, but for Haskell that is exactly the point. "People have lots of preconceptions about me," he says, unblinkingly, "and they're all wrong."

For a man yet to nail down a regular place in the England side, Haskell has attracted a considerable amount of attention. Not all of it has been entirely favourable.

"My biggest issue is that lots of things are spoken about me before people have actually met me," he says, squashed into an antique chair at England's training headquarters at Pennyhill Park.

"People throw words around like 'Brand Haskell', because of something they've read on a website, but none of that exists. I work as hard as anyone, perhaps harder, to be good at my game. For me it's only about wanting to perform well for my country."

Ah yes. Brand Haskell. It's not the 24-year-old's rugby that generally causes him problems. Most England fans would agree that he fully deserves his recall for this Saturday's battle against Argentina. What some people seem to struggle with - among them a fair few regular 606 and BBC blog users - is the perception that Haskell is more interested in raising his profile than rucking, more focused on Tweets than tackles.

There's the official website, with its animated Haskell figure and 'JH' logo drawn to look like a set of posts, the naked calendar, the controversial decision to ply his club trade in Paris, and the Twitter updates (sample from the summer: "I am out the england squad which is gutting on every level but another challenge which I accept and will dominate".)

Much of the criticism is unfair. There's nothing inherently wrong with having a personal website - lots of people, sports stars or otherwise, do - and the calendar was a charity one that also featured Simon Shaw, Tom Palmer and Olly Barkley. The switch to Stade Francais has worked well for his game, and as for Twitter - well, if we're going to hang people for their throwaway 140-character updates, all of us are in trouble.

All the same, it has clearly taken its toll.

A reflective James Haskell poses for pictures at England's base.jpg

"Anyone who has the time to fill in comments online, you know - obviously people can have an opinion, but I don't care what people say," Haskell tells me, blood congealing slowly around a dark red cut across the bridge of his nose.

"I don't ever look at anything online, especially people's comments, because they bear no resemblance to me. All I need to worry about is what's happening next to me and how hard I work, and what the people in power and importance, like the coaches, think.

"With Twitter it's quite nice to just have a little avenue to express your feelings. And the fact that people are able to give their opinions back - it's quite enjoyable. It can also be a little bit addictive, that constant updating, but from my perspective all I want to be known for is being a rugby player. The best way to answer these people who have an opinion is to let my rugby do the talking."

Haskell speaks with the weariness of a man who has had his fingers burned too many times.

"Out in France I don't do any media, I don't talk to any PRs or anything - my focus is just on the rugby. I just really wanted to concentrate on my rugby.

"The relief of not having any - the French media are very different to over here, and I can just get on with playing. I'm like an academy player over in France . I live with my friends, we live in a nice house, we just turn up for training, we go out and enjoy Paris - the sights, the restaurants. And that's it. It's simplified and it's perfect. It's all I want to do."

So all the attention, the off-the-field activities, became impossible to deal with?

"I think the period I was in, and the sort of rugby I was playing, and some of the things that happened in my private life, and that kind of stuff just meant that it all became too much. So having the new simplicity is really nice."

Haskell's selection - allied to the promotions for his fellow replacements against Australia, Paul Hodgson and Dylan Hartley (Duncan Bell's selection owing to David Wilson's injury) - reflects Martin Johnson's pressing need to inject pace and dynamism into a side that looked as stodgy as cold porridge for large parts of the defeat to Australia.

Johnson is well aware that defeat to Argentina, even though they are two places higher than England in the current IRB world rankings, would be considered unpalatable by large sections of the Twickenham crowd. While a loss is unlikely to have the same terminal impact on his role as the Pumas' 25-18 win in 2006 had on Andy Robinson's - seven defeats in 12 games might be a depressing record, but it's no seven reverses in a row - it would add further weight to the criticism that Johnson has failed to noticeably improve England's fortunes in his year in charge.

That Haskell is one of the men charged with lifting the side might strike some as a little ironic, considering he was left out of Johnson's elite squad in July and warned publicly by the manager that his move to France could put any future England place in jeopardy.

Haskell, however, says he never felt that he had been left out in the cold.

"People wanted to make a big deal about me not being in the squad, but I spoke to Martin and he told me that if I performed and performed well, I'd be back in it. I never missed any games for England or any training, so the relevance of being included in that squad was by-the-by."

His switch from Wasps to Stade drew criticism from other learned quarters (his old mentor Lawrence Dallaglio was particularly disappointed to lose his talents) but Haskell seems a revitalised and more focused player for the move.

At times last season his progression seemed to have stalled, the rampant enthusiasm that saw him dubbed 'Keeno' by Dallaglio and Joe Worsley as a young Wasp diluted by the demands of the English game.

James Haskell runs with the ball during England training.jpg Haskell shows the sort of dynamism in training that England will be looking for on Saturday

"Sometimes in the past I think I got caught up in trying to be a master of everything" he admits. "You're just not going to be able to do that as a rugby player - even the best players in the world have got areas they need to work on.

"You have to play to your strengths, and that's what I've done. I've fitted in with a very good back row in France, which has meant that I've been able to cultivate what I'm good at, which is ball-carrying, tackling and competing for the ball. That's exactly what I want to bring to this squad."

Haskell has talked in the past about wanting to make the number six jersey his own. All 13 of his previous starts for the national side have come at blind-side, and if he hasn't always remained there ("My first game in 2007I started at six, but I only lasted 19 seconds because Joe Worsley got knocked out,") his selection at eight might raise eyebrows with Wasps fans who saw him struggle there at times over the last few seasons.

Haskell nods. "Yeah. For a long time Lawrence just kept playing, and the strengths I had in areas of the game were at six and seven at that period of time. I've played most of the time at six or seven for Stade and I think those are my key positions, but the opportunity to play at eight is something I can handle.

"I have the experience to do that, I think I can offer something there and I'm looking forward to it. I'm not going to make any assertions about me wanting to stay there or not stay there - I've got an opportunity to play, and that's all that matters. To fit into the England squad you would play anywhere."

And so, just before kick-off at Twickenham on Saturday, Michael Bublé will get the nod once again.

The tune of choice? 'Haven't Met You Yet'. As far as Haskell is concerned, it could hardly be more appropriate.


  • Comment number 1.

    Of course there are probably pressures from pr and marketing gurus and agents who tell you that if you do xy and z off the pitch you can "raise your profile" and make more money etc.....

    but the bottom line is this...if you take care of business on the pitch, and the rest will take care of itself.

    Model yourself on Mike Teague not Simon Cowell.

  • Comment number 2.

    Haskell definately impressed off the bench against aus. (in fact all of the replacements brought in did)I think that MJ has made some good changes. still a bit dubious at goode on the bench - if it were me i'd have at least somebody able to play back 3 to bring off the bench

  • Comment number 3.

    Why does the BBC constantly go on about Twitter? All surveys done show it to be no more popular than any other similar service.
    It really annoys me.
    Someone obviously has shares in it - wake up Aunty, no-ones tweeting.

  • Comment number 4.

    You are clearly very impressionable Tom!

    There are good reasons why people have questionned Haskell's character.

    He might laugh off all the talk about Brand Haskell. Yet in his book, Ian McGeechan says the player and his advisors were talking about Brand Haskell during contract negs.

    He has generally given the impression of being arrogant and cocky before really achieving anything. Look on his site-he would attend the opening of an envelope

  • Comment number 5.

    One thing you don't mention (and nor does he) is that the N°6 jersey is likely to remain the property of a certain Tom Croft for many years to come, barring injuries. Given that Haskell is most definitely NOT an openside, at least not the kind most people want to see (he doesn't have the hands, the eye, or the feet), then he will have to accept the idea of competing with out-and-out 8's if he wants to keep playing for England. For someone with so little experience in this pivotal position, I must say it's a tall order... Having said that, Easter is just a rumbling old diesel bus, and none of the other candidates have really put their hand up, so who knows?

    Of the other selections, I think Hodgson is a good pick - Care is the quicker, more talented player but was guilty of slowing the tempo last week and generally seems to be playing as if the England 9 shirt was his own, which it patently isn't yet.

  • Comment number 6.

    haskel is rapidly becoming a caricature of himself. there are so many contradictions in that interview its not funny. as i was reading it i kept expecting him to refer to himself in the 3rd person, but he's avoided that one, at least in this instance.

    here are a few gems-

    in refering to people comenting on him online (like me now infact) he said

    "Anyone who has the time to fill in comments online, you know- "

    clearly implying he thinks they're sad/losers or whatever. he also says

    "I don't ever look at anything online, especially people's comments"

    then goes on to talk about his use of twitter

    "With Twitter it's quite nice to just have a little avenue to express your feelings. And the fact that people are able to give their opinions back - it's quite enjoyable"


    oh and as for "Out in France I don't do any media, I don't talk to any PRs or anything", would that be because he doesn't speak any french yet?

    he had a web site pretty much before he was in the national side, let alone an established international, that kind of arrogance is pretty hard to like. you'd have thought that being at wasps with people like dallaglio, dawson, worsley, vickery and ibanez that he'd have had a good grounding and really applied himself, but apparently not. i hope his move to france does him good as he clearly has the physical presence to be a successful international, but i doubt he has the brains to be a great one.

  • Comment number 7.

    Some posters on this blog really need to get a life.....What does it matter if Haskell has his own website, or tweets, or goes to an opening of something or other. What counts is what he contributes on the pitch. If he is good enough, he will get picked. If he doesn't perform, he will get dropped. Simple.

    I can count lots of players in International Rugby that have been arrogant, possibly even dislikeable, but I still admire them as players. Arrogance in some players has even made them better. Mark Regan for one - can imagine he's probably quite annoying, but I still love him as a player. I don't think I could spend time in Danny Care or Cipriani's company, yet I still think they are players of great rugby skill and talent.

    So why do we criticise a player who was stagnating at Wasps to move to Stade and play in a back row with some World greats? If he has his own website, so what?

    Rate him on his play on the pitch, not your perception of what he might or might not be off it.

  • Comment number 8.

    xpat73 - "Model yourself on Mike Teague not Simon Cowell" - my favourite phrase of the week so far.

    akaTommySmith - wanted to give himself a chance to defend himself. BBC balance and all that.

    hermmy - do you reckon he can develop into a top-class international 8?

    RainyDay, edgroves - agree with what you say about the stuff on the pitch being what matters - do you think Haskell's put himself under more pressure because of the non-rugby bits in the past?

    Btw - if anyone fancies meeting the Argentina team Haskell will be coming up against, they'll be down at the RFU shop at Twickenham on Thursday afternoon from 3pm to shake hands and sign autographs. But probably not update their Twitter feeds...

  • Comment number 9.

    'I don't do any media, I don't talk to any PRs or anything - my focus is just on the rugby.'

    He says this while doing an interview with the BBC!

    Also, Fordyce, this is at least the 2nd blog you've written about Haskell....... Just watch out, he may have befriended you to get access to favourable sections of the media so people start writing blogs like, well, like this one.....

  • Comment number 10.

    To Sam Giblett,
    I think Johnno has decent options on the bench - Erinle played a lot of his rugby on the wing or at 15 when he was at Wasps and the Tigers. Cueto and Ugo can interchange if neccesary and in emergencies Jonny has the talent to move to the centres. You have to make the choice for 4forwards or 4backs. Against the Pumas having replacements up front is probably more important.

    As for Haskell, he is arrogant but as others have said if he performs then it isn't a problem - you don't have to like him as a person. Regardless of what he does around his career at club level, PR events etc if it isn't disrupting his international form and perfomance then fine. I'm happy to see him at 8 - I really don't want to see Easter come back into it even when he is fit, nothing better than average premiership standard, nor for my money is Jordan Crane. As long as Haskell performs, makes yards and tackles without giving away silly penalties then we can look forward to a english back row with great ability in all aspects of the game. For my money Steffon Armitage must be running Moody very close, even though the old warhorse is in fantastic form at the moment.

  • Comment number 11.

    Danny Cipriani seems to be effected by off the pitch matters as does haskell, at least in the past...
    I think they both need to remember why theyre in the public eye and who pays there wages...
    maybe its endemic of a professional era, look at the way other sports have gone, lots of money and exposure very young before youve achieved anything, unless theyre mentally focused on improving themselves as players, there careers could be over before their potential was ever allowed to flourish...

  • Comment number 12.


    I wasn't questioning 4 forwards - it makes sense to me it just seems that in the last game erinle had little effect off the bench and tbh i wouldn't have brought goode on at all as he kickjs too much ball from 10 i think there has to be someone other than goode that could be on the bench eszpecially as johnson has 2 goal kickers on the pitch already.

  • Comment number 13.

    haskell came off the bench and stood out. in the past he has given awawy silly penalties but lets hope that has stopped. he adds something to the back row which is lacking at 8...pace! goodbye easter, you may retire now.

    future back row will be haskell, croft and rees/ armitage. its not about being huge its about speed and having the skills...this trio be immense if they can all stop getting independantly injured/ dropped...

    good selection of hodgson.

    if second rows dont perform after 30 minutes, bring on lawes. his total lack of respect for his opposition is excellent.

    will england win????

  • Comment number 14.

    I understood the concerns of the RFU as the SRU were trying to adopt a similar attitude by illustrating a strong desire for the players to ply their trade within Scotland. It was always going to be unrealistic as the funding levels in the game up here are pathetic. It is a real shame to only have two professional teams, you cant expect players in that environment to try and stay here.

    Haskell is a good player. He definitely made the right decision by heading over the France. It is hardly a drama. Flying back and forth, as well as trains back and forth between are two countries is hardly difficult. England cant afford to ignore players of the calibre that Haskell possesses. People get far too concerned with hype. I am happy to see that the moves for the players, Wilko and Haskell, has paid off tremendously well and despite everything that the RFU were saying, it is now going to benefit England.


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