What a Flanker, the title of James Haskell’s autobiography, sums up a player who could not have taken the game or his career more seriously, but is still prepared to poke fun at himself. If he learned early on the value of publicity in generating a profile and spent years honing it, he is someone who has considerable depth: what you see is not what you get.
Haskell’s book is published in a week when two other club stalwarts, Chris Robshaw and Brad Barritt, are playing their final matches for Harlequins and Saracens respectively. While all three were not the most naturally talented players of their generation, they maximised their ability and made themselves indispensable.
Haskell retired last year just before his 34th birthday after his body finally rebelled against the treatment it had to endure for so long. Injuries are a consequence of a game that has in the past 25 years become ever more physically unrelenting and intense, but Haskell invested in his mind at the start of his career with Wasps by paying to see a psychologist and continued to do so thereafter.
“There are players all around with demons in their heads,” he says. “They might have had a row with the wife, taken criticism in the media, their body is tired and they are on a losing run. Being told to work harder does not solve those problems and all professional sports, especially rugby, are in the dark ages when it comes to psychology.
“There are players who could be 10 times better if they reached out to deal with things. There is a stigma around psychologists because they are considered to be for people with problems, but that is wrong. I went to see one from the start because I had confidence issues and wanted to develop a uniform way of preparing for matches.
“The game pays players well but often gets the infrastructure wrong. You could find yourself staying in a low-budget hotel in a horribly hot room, on a tiny bed with poor springs and served terrible food. You had a bad game the previous week, the coach is not speaking to you and you are struggling with injury. How do you put all that behind you?
“Even in my darkest moments, I have been able to switch off, but that is not the same for most players. I remember being the only one in the England dressing room who was seeing [a psychologist], but the mind should be treated in the same way as the body. In my early days at Wasps, the coaches were harsh and critical, telling me to get running after a mistake. I used a psychologist as someone to unburden on and put an arm around me. I paid for one myself, as I did nutritionists, speed and strength coaches, because I only had one career and never took what was in front of me as given.”
The only one of the many coaches Haskell – whose career took in France, Japan and New Zealand as well as the Premiership, England and the Lions – worked with who saw the value of a psychologist was Eddie Jones, the current England head coach.
“I owe Eddie so much,” says Haskell. “He changed the face of English rugby. He was aspirational and the boys loved going into camp with him. He was as far from an RFU man as you could get, but he was what England needed. I felt for the coaches before him, Stuart Lancaster and Martin Johnson, because they wanted to focus on rugby but got bogged down by admin. Eddie got the balance right in terms of the focus on people and tasks and he surrounded himself with good people.
“You can get caught up in the job because England is 90% media nonsense and red tape and 10% coaching. He knows his greatest commodity is the squad and he empowers players, treating them as adults and letting them have fun. He does not kowtow to the media, which is brave. Everyone had their knives out for him after the World Cup final loss was followed by a defeat to France, but he is too experienced to be deflected.”
Haskell was with the England squad in the week leading up to last November’s final against South Africa in Yokohama. “Eddie invited me to watch training and speak to the players, thanking me for what I had done in the buildup to he tournament. It was really special for me and laid some ghosts. I thought England would win, but the difference between the sides was that we did not rectify mistakes but when South Africa did something bad, the next three or four things they did were positive. Only New Zealand have the knack of doing a U-turn in mugs’ alley.”
Haskell remains a keen observer of the game and a podcast is an outlet for his trenchant thoughts. “People in rugby think everyone cares about it, but it has a small audience,” he says. “We need to broaden the horizon, but what is holding us back is that no one has a flipping clue what is going on. Given everything that has happened this year, I like the idea of a global season, a smaller, ring-fenced Premiership and central contracts, but that would take power away from club owners who like to get their way.
“That was seen with Saracens being relegated. I am not sure what they did made much difference, but unless you are Tony Rowe [the Exeter chairman], everyone needs to shut up. He can feel aggrieved because in a final, the extra talent you have on the bench through fiddling the books can make a difference, but in terms of Saracens and Exeter looking after their players, their training methods and camaraderie – other clubs should look and learn.
“Who knows what has been going on with the [salary] cap. When I was in my first stint at Wasps, Premiership Rugby conducted an investigation. I was asked: was I paid any money by the club outside the contract? No. Have you signed anything to that effect? No. OK, see you later. It was hardly Colombo. There is so much good that could happen, but no one seems to be in control or able to agree on anything. What has happened this year needs to be a wake-up call.”
What a Flanker by James Haskell (HarperCollins, £20) is available now in hardcover.