Hask Me Anything!

SAM HOBBS had the chance to catch up with the England and Wasps forward ahead of his appearance at the Union last night.

England haskell james Rugby six nations Sport

Whatever your opinion of James Haskell, he is, in more than one sense, a big man. He comfortably filled the sizeable wingback that he sat in during our interview, and his massive physique suggested that if I asked the wrong questions he could bring my short time on this earth to a swift end.

But when he opened his mouth he was as eloquent as any Cambridge arts student I’ve come across, even when describing the indescribable, like playing for his country: “For most players, myself included, it’s a lifetime ambition. There’s nothing quite like getting into the changing room and seeing the shirt with your name on it hanging on that peg. The thing about Twickenham is that it’s a huge stage. As soon as you run out you can hear the crowd roaring, you’ve got the fireworks. Those games are real highlights, the reason why you want to play.”

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A ‘lifetime ambition’ fulfilled for Haskell

It’s a feeling he’ll be getting on Saturday when he lines up to play Scotland in England’s first game in the Six Nations. On England’s chances he was cautious: “Realistically we want to do well. The thing with the Six Nations is it is obviously an extremely competitive tournament. Every team raises the bar for the Six Nations. Every team is the threat. It’s an old cliché, but we’re just focused on the next game, Scotland, because they want to come down and spoil the party.”

He certainly seems to enjoy his job. Anyone who has seen his numerous behind-the-scenes videos will have been witness to the sort of banter that goes on. It’s a part of the game he seems to revel in: “When you put 30 rugby players in a squad there’s always going to be some good joking and laughing. We might not be the most intelligent guys but in terms of observational humour and nicknames, some of the guys are unbelievable.

Most importantly, though, who has the best chat? “Chris Ashton, Ugo Monye and Danny Care are all right on the money.” This appraisal of course exempts Haskell himself, who certainly reaches the highest levels of changing-room repartie. He happily jokes about centre Mike Tindall’s less-than-perfect features: “I don’t know how, ultimately, he damaged his nose, but it’s an unbelievable shnozzle. His ability to sniff round corners is unparalleled.” He even told us which England WAG most caught his eye: “Mike Brown from Harlequins has got an unbelievable-looking missus. I think he’s batting way out of his crease, but she’s very lovely!”

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The shnozzle in question

Aside from the silliness, there’s no escaping the fact that Haskell has courted his fair amount of controversy. “To be honest, if you put yourself out there, if you live by the sword, then you die by the sword.” The first instance of such shenanigans came a few years ago, when he was still a schoolboy at Wellington College. There were false accusations that he was involved in the recording of a sex tape.

Understandably, he reiterated the fact that he did nothing wrong: “I lent a friend of mine a camera and that was that. Because I was playing England Under-19 at the time as well as for London Wasps they made a story out of it. I can hold my head up high about it.”

Then there was the incident in a New Zealand hotel room that threatened to ruin a few England careers back at the 2011 World Cup. Along with team-mates Dylan Hartley and  Chris Ashton, Haskell was accused of sexually harassing a maid. Again, he was found not guilty. Understandably, there are a lot of people who are completely disgusted by the sort of behaviour that got them into trouble, and Will Smith’s Tab column last term sparked a backlash of bile, so is there something inherently wrong with the way the rugby boys behave?

“I think that people have to disassociate professional rugby from club and university teams. If you spent time looking at what professionals do and how they conduct themselves, you’d realise that it’s all about being a professional and working hard.”

Whatever his record off the pitch, we certainly hope to see him at his best as he takes on the rest of Europe over the coming weeks. England host Scotland on Saturday before a trip to Dublin to play Ireland the following weekend.