It may not have ended in the way he would’ve liked but James Haskell’s rugby career is one that almost every other player would be envious of and we should celebrate him for the player and character that he is.
My first experience of him was when he was the young whippersnapper coming through at Wasps and he was trying to be the new Lawrence Dallaglio. We used to call him ‘Mini Lol’ when we played against him for Leicester.
You could tell how good he was going to be even then, though, so much so that we couldn’t decide whether it was better to go up against Hask who was like the Duracell bunny or Lol who would have the referee on side the whole game.
Back then he was trying to be Dallaglio but it didn’t take him long to emerge from the big man’s shadow and forge a great career of his own.
In his younger days, he was one of those players that you thought was an absolute helmet when you played against him but as soon as you got to know him you realised what a great bloke he was.
I had the privilege of playing with him for a couple of years with England and then at the end of my career for a couple of years with Wasps and he was hilarious every day at training.
He was often the butt of the jokes but he would be dishing it out left, right and centre as well. We used to call him ‘the shitspreader’ because he was like one of those agricultural machines that would fire out so much shit.
Maybe only one in 10 of his gags or insults would actually land or make sense but he was great to have around the dressing room.
He’s relentless in everything he does and calling himself ‘the Archbishop of Banterbury’ and some of the other things that he did definitely led to him being misunderstood by fans, some sections of the media and even opposition players as well.
He’s up there with the most professional guys I’ve ever played with. The effort he put in and amount of extra training and work he used to do was phenomenal and that was just on the rugby side of things, without all his extracurricular activities.
We used to take the mickey out of him for his handling because he really couldn’t catch for love nor money and that did rile him. I used to say that he was the best back rower in the world if he didn’t touch the ball.
If we’re honest, his hands still aren’t the best but he even worked on them as he was so driven to be the best he could be. And, I think he maximised every bit of potential he had.
Dallaglio and Joe Worsley are the only back rowers to have won more caps for England and if you list all of his achievements from a Grand Slam to a European Cup to Premiership titles and then playing in the Top 14, Super Rugby, it’s a hell of a CV.
If you cover up his name on that CV, most players will tell you that’s about as good a career as you can possibly have. The name James Haskell divides opinion but you can’t take what he’s achieved away from him.
And, if you look at his work off the rugby pitch, there’s nobody more prepared for life after playing than him even though it might not feel like that to him at the moment.
He’s taken a lot of flak for that over the years from other players and fans who don’t know him because of the perception that he’s not been fully focused on his rugby but that hasn’t been the case at all and it’ll stand him in good stead now.
I was amazed at how committed he was to his rugby and how much commitment he showed to his training, his supplement business, setting up a gym, DJing and everything else he did. How he found the time I’ve no idea. I’m not sure when he sleeps.
Not every player can be like that because some would be rubbish if they had so much other stuff going on but it definitely helped Hask and he really broke the mould in that respect.
He might have mellowed a bit from the youngster who started out at Wasps alongside Dallaglio and co but it’s part of his make-up that he can’t sit still.
The toe injury he’s struggled with over the past few years since he was Man of the Series in England’s 3-0 whitewash of Australia away from home in 2016 means he hasn’t been able to end his career on the note he would’ve wanted but that’s not what people will remember.
They’ll remember how devastating he was in that series victory down under, how he was told he wasn’t a number seven but helped England win a Grand Slam and how he played all over the globe and met every challenge he faced head on.
It is ironic that it’s a toe injury that has forced him to call time on his playing career, though, as he’s the only rugby player I’ve ever seen in the changing room with painted toenails!
I bumped into him at a private medical clinic earlier on in the season and he was still hopeful of getting back to his best. His injury hasn’t allowed him to and this season will have been so frustrating for him but nobody is better set up for life after rugby than him.
He definitely doesn’t need any advice on retirement, or anything else for that matter, but I’d just tell him to carry on being himself and he’ll definitely make a success of whatever he does next. And, rugby will be a quieter place without him.
I always used to try to play with a smile on my face and have fun while playing rugby for a living and Hask was the same. He just managed to do so while being a damn sight more professional than I was!
A lot of people might have got the wrong impression of him over the years but if I was picking a player that I wanted to have next to me on my team, I’d pick James Haskell every day of the week. He’s an absolute legend of a bloke and this definitely isn’t the last we’re going to hear of him.
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