Fifteen months after he painfully called it quits on his playing career, James Haskell will fill one of the few occupied seats at closed doors Franklin’s Gardens this Sunday when Wasps and Northampton, his two former English rugby employers, go head-to-head in the sport’s post-lockdown UK restart.

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Co-comms is the assignment, talkSPORT the outlet and the fast-speaking Haskell is sure to give this meeting between one club he spent a dozen seasons at and another where he frustratingly managed just four starts the sort of quick-witted repartee that personified him as a colourful player during a lengthy career that also featured a three-year wanderlust which took him to clubs in France, Japan and NZ.

One thing certain is that the 35-year-old won’t look down on the East Midlands pitch with any pangs of regret that he is not still out there putting in a shift. His body simply wouldn’t let him. Bad enough that ankle and toe injuries prevented Haskell from having a shot at inclusion in the England World Cup squad, his flesh and bones have continued their refusal to play ball post-rugby, putting into doubt his embryonic MMA career where his planned debut fight three months ago was shelved due to the pandemic.

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RugbyPass brings you the opening episode of season five of The Rugby Pod, the show fronted by Andy Goode and Jim Hamilton

“It’s a very good question, what mindset am I in?”, pondered Haskell, joining RugbyPass on a Zoom call to sift through exactly what he has been up to since he hung up the boots in May 2019. “I’m quite enjoying retirement, but my body is falling apart at a rate of knots. Can’t run, can’t do anything. I got to a good place primed for my fight and it got cancelled, lockdown happened and basically since then, my body has given up which is frustrating.

“Other than that I have finished my autobiography, doing a lot of virtual DJ-ing, I’ve launched two podcasts and got a third one to come, so I’m very busy. I have lost a lot of money during lockdown like most people but I won’t complain too much because obviously people have been losing their lives. But other than that, I’m alright actually. I’m currently sitting in the garden having a cigar and talking to you.

“I don’t know is the honest answer,” Haskell continued when asked if we will ever see him beating the head off of someone in an MMA cage. “I’m trying my best to train and get back in the mix. There is still fighting in empty arenas but there’s talk of second surges and at some point you have to make a decision about financially what the situation is and everything else. It’s a bit of a scary place at the moment, the world. I’m still aiming to fight but we will just have to see what happens.”

A patient outlook was something Haskell wasn’t prepared to have with his rugby career. Despite being a central part of the England revival under Eddie Jones, winning consecutive Six Nations titles in 2016 and 2017, he accepted his body didn’t have the durability to keep him in the mix for RWC Japan, a letdown he sounds at peace with – especially with the stars of the English game facing a gruelling schedule between now and the end of the 2020/21 season.

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“Look, I was forced to retire, I didn’t have a choice,” Haskell explained. “I wanted to go to that World Cup, I tried everything to make a big impact at Northampton. I couldn’t thank the club enough, they were brilliant. My family and I were looked after. I enjoyed it immensely after kind of a bit heartache at Wasps and the way it finished. The way I was treated there was difficult and Northampton really bridged the gap for me.

“There was a lot of Northampton fans who didn’t want me to come and were very outspoken. They assumed I was on mega wedge instead of the academy contract that I essentially signed because I wanted to do everything I could to do to play for them and get to the World Cup. It wasn’t ever about money, it was about trying to perform and my body gave up.

“People ask me if I miss rugby now? I couldn’t do it if I wanted to. From sort of my shins upwards I feel great, I’m in great shape. I look alright with my shirt off but that’s about as good it gets. I look alright, but I couldn’t do anything if you asked me to. When I was fighting I thought do you know what, maybe I have made a mistake here, maybe it just needed a bit of rest but no, it was 100 per cent the right decision.

“Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Lewis Ludlam, Billy Vunipola, Mark Wilson, these boys would have beaten me into squad anyway and I’m pretty comfortable with that and think with rugby players at the moment it’s difficult. If a rugby player is not playing rugby or training is he even a rugby player anymore?

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“It sounds like an existential crisis to me and it has been incredibly hard. Yes, the lockdown has been hard for me in certain ways but actually I have been okay. Trying to playing a Saturday game and a Tuesday game every week for the next few weeks sounds like f***ing hell to me,” he said, moving on to outline the calibre of the rugby he expects to unfold in the weeks ahead.

“Injury is going to be an issue potentially. We had Eddie Jones on The Good, The Bad & The Rugby and he felt injury will be a factor in selection. Hard grounds will be a factor and Eddie is also very astute as he is a very clever man, he pointed out that with no crowds you’re going to suddenly see ‘the team’. Teams will be successful if they love the club and they love playing rugby and they love working with each other. I’m one of these people who wanted to play for the event, I wanted to play for the spectacle. I didn’t play to play in empty stadiums.

Haskell MMA fighting

James Haskell strikes a pose at an MMA cage in London last February before the lockdown (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

“Yes, my competitive and professional nature would have taken over and I would always do everything for my teammates, but it will be interesting to see and I expect it to be physical, expect to see a lot of players pent up. I was a miserable b*****d when I didn’t get to hit anybody for a long period of time, so it’s going to be fiery, it’s going to be probably error-strewn and there is going to be injuries, but it’s going to good to see people back doing what they love.”

Doing what he loved regularly put Haskell in the line of fire, the cranks seldom slow to mouth off in an attempt to take his ebullient character down a peg or two. His year-and-a-bit separation from the furnace has allowed space for perspective, reflections now influenced by the novelty of the former back row being recognisable to a whole new audience following his appearance on I’m A Celebrity, the UK TV programme filmed in the Australian outback.

That alternative attention has generally rubbed off Haskell well compared to the rugby-coated brickbats he endured ever since making a 2003/04 breakthrough at Wasps. “Listen, I always got the p*** taken out of me… you can steal a couple of caps through injuries, through tours, through everything else. But 77, you have to do a good way to steal it. The biggest indictment for me was magnified with I’m A Celebrity, ITV edited me in a certain way.

“I did very well for two weeks and there was a couple of episodes where they basically tried to screw me, but when I left my reaction to my campmates was one of overall emotion. Ant and Dec said they have never seen a reaction like that to somebody leaving the camp and everyone sang my praises. I don’t think I could have played in the Highlanders, in Japan, in Stade Francais, at Wasps, at Northampton and got on with all the different variety of coaches, Martin Johnson, Dai Young, Stuart Lancaster, Eddie Jones, Jamie Joseph, Michael Cheika if I was s*** and I was difficult and I was a nightmare.

“All I have ever mattered about was whether my teammates enjoyed my company and I got a few laughs and the coaches respected me, so that is the biggest thing for me. The people who say I was s***, there is a small sub-section of fan sites and people who have never played or played amateur who revel in calling people s*** and being rude and actually they will get their comeuppance one day. For me, my motto to life – living well – is the best revenge and I’m not doing too badly at the moment.

“There are certain sections of the sports fans who take great pride in slagging players off. There is a whole sub-section of that and it’s interesting to read Graeme Morrison from Scotland talking about how some of these fan sites gave him mental health issues, which is something to be explored.

“Look, I have never really worried about what people think of me. I was flattered that when I retired all the amazing feedback I got on my career. I’m also known as James from I’m A Celebrity which is an interesting thing and then bizarrely fans who watch that are much friendly and much nicer than rugby fans ever were to me, which is kind of quite nice.

“I kind of always tense up when people come up and talk to me because I’m not sure what they are going to say. The rugby fans will come up and go, ‘I’m sorry that I’m a Saracens supporter, I used to think you were a bit of a prick but I really like you now’ which is strewn with so many unnecessaries.

“But most people from I’m A Celebrity will come up and say, ‘I thought you were brilliant, I thought you should have won’, blah, blah, blah which is quite refreshing. I wear different hats at the moment. People know me for different things but everybody appears to be quite lovely.

“It’s very odd for me personally because I don’t ever feel like I was a rugby player anymore because the season didn’t start where it started and I don’t do a lot of stuff with rugby apart from the podcast. You’d have to ask people how I’m perceived. I certainly don’t get people tweeting me anymore telling me I’m s*** and to retire, so that is quite nice. People seem to be quite friendly… so there must be something I’m doing right.”

This new-found popularity won’t stop Haskell from being outspoken on certain rugby issues, however. He touched on three in particular when talking to RugbyPass, the controversial enforced Premiership player salary cuts, Black Lives Matter and its relationship with rugby, and the lack of funding for Restart Rugby, the official charity for the RPA.

First, the wedge that got taken off players in the English league. “Let’s be very clear: the right thing to do was for players to take a pay-cut because the world is changing, but I took great offence and the players did in the way it was handled. It’s very clear that the twelve Premiership clubs are a law unto themselves and they do what they want to do. They don’t consult the RPA, who I do think do a good job and are always left to pick up the pieces.

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“I also like the PRL and think they do well. They are supposed to represent the clubs but the owners own the clubs and they decide what they’re going to do and players being told at gunpoint ‘you’re going to take this instead of being asked would you like to take this’ was very difficult. Not even saying, ‘look if we’re successful this year you can earn the money back’ or any of that dialogue, it was ‘right we’re doing this and you sign here’, players having pieces of paper stuck in their faces and told to sign it.

“The problem with sportspeople, in general, is they are inherently selfish because you have to be and normally rugby players aren’t interested in stuff, so many things are just slid under the carpet. It has been very difficult, hence someone like Ellis Genge wanting to create an add-on for the RPA to be a real players’ voice but he couldn’t even get by. He sent out something like 700 emails to people but around 75 people replied, so if the players themselves don’t care and aren’t prepared to take action then what happens to them happens really.”

Switching to the BLM, which has been a focus during Premiership reopening weekend, Haskell said: “It’s incredibly important that everybody supports it. Unfortunately like every political movement you have your extremes which hijack every element, but the basis of the Black Lives Matter is essential.

“The BLM party and extreme political views they have, I’m not on board. But the simple fact for a long time we have neglected a whole section of the world is abundantly clear. I do a lot of work with homophobia and transgender and everything else, those guys are asking for equality.

“Black Lives Matter, black people weren’t asking for equality, they were asking just to matter or just to be flagged up and we have fallen far short if there is a whole set of people who don’t even feel they matter. People should take the knee, people should do whatever it does. It doesn’t mean supporting the extreme ideology and the madness.

“There is madness in Christianity, there’s madness in every area of lives, there are extreme views in everything but common sense dictates that this (BLM) is important to support and if people feel marginalised in a sport I love you have got to support it. It’s very important and I hope people will do that.”

Finally, there is the issue of mental health in rugby, a topic Haskell feels must be better funded. “I was shocked to discover that Restart, where I have become a trustee, are funded by nobody else but donations from private people and things like the RPA. The RFU put no money into Restart, the clubs put no money into Restart, yet every season we’re helping kind of 50 to 70 players reach out on an anonymous hotline where a lot of players are being stopped from doing some very silly things to themselves.

“Sport in general, from what I have seen, psychology is the last port of call. Players will buy the dearest (personal) trainers, players will pay for the best supplements, nutritions, but they will leave their mind until last. Through my career, if you asked in the changing room how many people saw a psychologist, out of a squad of 40 I reckon there would be four maximum. I was always one of them.

“It’s not (all) about sitting down and crying and saying something happened to you as a kid or you have got this, it can be just improving, getting into a routine, developing a mind, making you a better player, making you a better person dealing with pressure. And then you have got the extreme ends of lots of people have got lots of stuff going on, anxiety, depression and this lockdown would have flagged a lot of stuff up.

“The resources in Restart are strained to the nth degree. I’m very surprised the funding isn’t there because clubs will invest in GPS vests to track how things are yet they won’t put money into making sure their players’ psychology is on point. Rugby has got a long way to go in this and we are still going to see unfortunate incidents until we really raise that awareness.”

Haskell will play his own part in that. For starters, he has an autobiography due out in October, a tome which he insists won’t curb his distinct flair for expression. “It’s me, my character personified. I had a ghostwriter but I went and rewrote a large, large portion of it, well over 70,000 words.

“For a long time, I have held my tongue because it was the best thing to do for my team. Everyone has had their say about me and now I have decided to have my say about everything… stories of all the stuff, the adventures. It’s not your standard rugby book, it’s not ‘I woke up on the morning on game day and I felt this and my parents drove me to rugby and I was born in Windsor’. It’s everything you’d want from a book.”

Then there are the podcasts, not only his revamped The Good, The Bad & The Rugby in the company of Mike Tindall and Alex Payne, but also another show – Couples Quarantine – with his wife Chloe Madeley. Haskell loves the freedom in creating audio, insisting it is the coming thing in a scene tired of the dominant influence which the UK’s traditional media once held.

“A podcast is me saying what I’m saying with nobody editing it,” he enthused. “It’s not short form, it’s not ‘welcome to The Today programme, you have got 30 seconds to talk about your book and you’re off’… there are lots of people who are going to show their true personality with podcasting.

“It’s hard when you’re playing because unfortunately the British media, in general, are the most toxic in the world, they’re universal for that. Eddie Jones said it, you’re either winning everything and everyone is pumping your tyres up, you’re either losing and everyone is s****ing on you, or everyone is trying to catch you out. It’s hard.

“I really hummed and hawed about doing a podcast while still playing because I didn’t want to be controversial but it turns out you can actually say things without being controversial, you can have an opinion without bringing everything down. It’s a great vehicle for people as is blogging and it’s why social media is such a good tool. Obviously the nightmare side I have talked about a long time but the positive side of it is it’s the only media you can control… that’s a really nice place to be.”

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