James Haskell column: European weeks are special weeks

By James HaskellWasps and England
James Haskell

The European Champions Cup - and its predecessor the Heineken Cup - is an incredible tournament to win, whether you are a player or a fan.

I was sitting in the stands as a 19-year-old Wasps fan when we beat Toulouse in the 2004 final at Twickenham with a moment of genius from Rob Howley, and Joe Worsley making 33 tackles.

Toulouse were big favourites. They had loads of ball, but it was a defensive masterclass from Wasps, with people putting their bodies on the line until they crawled off the field.

I had been a big Wasps fan since the age of 14 and had also travelled to watch the semi-final win away against Munster at Lansdowne Road in an incredible game sealed by a late Trevor Leota try.

Rob Howley celebrates his late winning try
Rob Howley scored a last-minute try in 2004 to give Wasps a 27-20 win over Toulouse

To then actually be part of a winning Wasps side in 2007 against Leicester, to be part of that dressing room and lift the trophy having watched from the stands just a few years before, was absolutely amazing.

When I saw the Saracens boys winning it last season you do look on with a bit of jealousy in a way, because you know how special an achievement it is and how hard it is to replicate.

Haskell attempts to go over the line in the semi-final of the 2007 Heineken Cup against Northampton Saints
Haskell attempts to go over the line in the semi-final of the 2007 Heineken Cup against Northampton Saints (Haskell was named as a replacement for the final)

Who should we look out for this season?

French champions Racing 92 have a number of big names, notably former All Black Dan Carter, who has a world status that transcends the sport.

Racing have been drawn with Munster, Leicester and Glasgow in a mouth-watering group that will be really interesting to watch.

The French teams are always interesting to watch. Toulouse, four-time champions, always bring a lot, and three-time winners Toulon have some stellar names.

Dan Carter
Dan Carter was a beaten finalist in 2016 with Racing 92 - can he go one better this year?

You don't normally get to see guys like Australia back Drew Mitchell close up unless you're playing Super 15.

Another player to watch is Charles Piutau, who was superb for Wasps last season and is now lighting things up for Ulster.

But I think for me it is a chance to see the guys from Super 15, who you don't get to play week in and out that is most exciting - it is always great to test yourself against the best. Toulon's former New Zealand centre Ma'a Nonu is another exciting player that many wouldn't have seen up close.

Who will win?

Honestly, you can't call it until you get into the tournament and see how teams are performing.

You have some Irish sides in there who have a rich heritage in the tournament, like Munster and Ulster, who will really want to compete, while Glasgow Warriors will give it a crack.

Charles Piatau
Charles Piatau's moment came in last year's quarter-final as he helped Wasps reach the semis with an 80th-minute try against Exeter Chiefs

Last year the English teams went away with it, supplying three of the semi-finalists and eventual champions Sarries, but this season I think it could be very different.

There is always a special buzz around the club when you are playing European rugby.

The training weeks become a little different because guys want to play rugby to challenge themselves against these massive French sides full of superstars, and to go to places like Munster's famous Thomond Park, so everything has an extra edge.

These are the sort of challenges that make your rugby career.

One thing you can guarantee is that the games will be very physical - there is less variety than in southern hemisphere rugby.

When I played for the Highlanders against New Zealand teams in Super Rugby you always knew it was going to be a very fast, fluid game. The matches were physical, and tough when playing other kiwi teams, but slightly looser than you would find in the Premiership.

Against the Aussie teams it was a halfway house between loose and physical, and with the South Africans you knew were going to get that physicality that bordered on a Test match.

European rugby is always very physical and it very often takes on the appearance of an international match.

Saracens were 'suffocating'

I don't think we played as well as we wanted to in last week's defeat by Saracens, but Sarries did what they do best - which is cause you problems in your own half, get the defensive line up in your face and generally play in that suffocating way.

They see set-pieces in lots of parts of the game. For them, it's not just the scrum and the line-out, but also kick-offs, kick chase, exit from their own 22m and the rest. They are very difficult to play against and Wasps will have to go away and learn from it.

If you don't get over the gainline then it is very easy for defensive lines to reset, and come back at you quicker.

They come up very quickly and stop you as soon as possible, again and again, and if you don't make a dent in them you are soon scrambling, and it feels claustrophobic.

It is difficult but it is down to us to learn how to unlock them. It is possible, but you need to get it right on the day and not give them any errors for them to feed off.

What they are doing at Saracens is very special and they have a group of guys who enjoy what they are doing, just as we do at Wasps.

The Vunipola brothers celebrate winning the 2016 European Rugby Champions Cup
Saracens' Vunipola brothers celebrate winning the 2016 European Rugby Champions Cup with a 21-9 win over Racing 92

They play a certain brand of rugby. For me, it is not the most exciting form of the game but it is devastatingly effective. They get results from it every time.

It is insightful to have former Saracens defensive coach Paul Gustard, who is the founding father of that Sarries 'Wolfpack' defensive system, on board with England now, but it doesn't make it any easier to play against them.

My most 'out there' training

In 2007 we worked with the SBS, which was incredible. It was all sorts of mental and physical stuff, a lot of stuff in the water-boarding boats and then paddling out to stuff. It was very demanding, but luckily there were no horrific wake-up calls in the mornings.

One exercise involved five tyres and three poles and you had to get the tyres from one pole to another in the same order while wearing gas masks.

You were trying to do it as fast as you can, and with a gas mask you were quickly struggling to breathe. We had mixed teams, with backs and forwards. We were very lucky to have Fraser Waters, who figured it all out.

Not so lucky to have Ronnie Regan (Mark Regan), who looked at one of our other challenges with great excitement, and proclaimed to the group: "Lads, two words: done it before!" We then all pointed out that was three words!

We also had one training drill called the duck drill. You would hold the ball above your head, run off in a straight line, and another guy would come steaming in and tackle you full-pelt from behind. You were a sitting duck, hence the name…

We would also have games where you play a small-sided game of rugby in the five-metre channel, so it is constant contact and knocking seven bells out of each other.

It is always hard work and pretty mindless.