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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'I got slated by everybody under the sun but the quote I live by is the best revenge is living well'

By Liam Heagney
James Haskell in 2015

James Haskell is a useful firebrand to have in your corner, talking the talk with a fearless abrasiveness reminiscent of the selfless way he ploughed into collisions in a rugby career that he retired from two years to the day last Friday, May 7. For sure, it has been a peaks-and-troughs retirement – reality TV stardom, music production, a best-selling book and popular podcasts all listed as upsides; medical bills, legacy rugby injuries, a troubled gym investment and social media spats the downsides.


There is plenty more of all that later, but the prime reason Haskell was on a Zoom call to RugbyPass this past week was to breathe life into Restart, the fundraising charity drive by the RPA aiming to raise awareness about players’ mental health and support their 24/7 confidential counselling service.

For all its wonderful aspects, rugby has its issues with the wellness of its most valuable asset – its talent on the pitch. Some players just get ruthlessly chewed up and spat out, leaving them struggling to get their head around the damage inflicted, and the expertise to help them overcome these scars isn’t as well resourced as it should be.

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The crazy reaction on the RugbyPass Fanzone to the 2021 Lions squad announcement
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The crazy reaction on the RugbyPass Fanzone to the 2021 Lions squad announcement

It was last year when Haskell – then a new Restart trustee – revealed his shock at the state of the charity’s financial support and it’s not as if the pandemic has done anything to alleviate stress on the invaluable services it provides. “It has got even worse if that were possible – it has got even worse,” he ruefully told RugbyPass. “We kept the anonymous hotline open and all the therapy sessions going while lockdown was on and there was a high demand on that but essentially it has only got more pressure.

“I did a 12-hour DJ set, Ed Jackson did walks to try and raise money and we made about five or six grand for the charity which kept it ticking over. There is some discussion with the RFU about trying to get some more money but it very much a hand-to-mouth sort operation yet the demand on it is ever-present,” continued Haskell ahead of a week where ex-Northampton and London Irish player Tom Stephenson will remarkably attempt to run five marathons in five days to bring in further cash.

“What he is doing is incredible. I certainly couldn’t do it. Tom Stephenson is brilliant, it just shows the passion. Look, Restart is something that you only sort of need when you need it and you kind of forget about it and are unaware of it, but people like Tom have obviously been touched by it and it is so important. When you are a player, stuff like that is out of sight, out of mind and you don’t really pay attention to it, but people are hopefully now realising how important this is.”


Mindfulness was something ex-England back-rower Haskell placed a premium on during his lengthy career and the coping mechanisms he picked up have now transferred from sport into a life less ordinary. “It’s something that is always present, the most controlling factor in our lives. Your mind can lead you to success or to destruction and you have to be to all intents and purposes a master of your mind.

“There are always two voices in your head. There is always that voice that leads you astray and you need to learn to control it and deal with negativity and master your mind. For me as a player that was always essential and something that I spent a long time working on and for some players, they need to sort that out.

“It’s always something that is very difficult to master, something that is a constant work in progress. You need to consistently work on it and readdress it and I was very lucky, I had a fantastic psychologist in Dr Gill Owen who gave me tricks and tools which I still use every day. I still have moments of self-doubt, still have things and you give in to that voice and you have to go and readdress it.”

Strong mind, temperamental body is the best way to describe Haskell two years into his post-playing afterlife. There were initial plans to perhaps get into MMA, but his body painfully dictated otherwise and the aches have hit him hard in the pocket as his ex-player status means he must foot the bill for any running repairs, not the sport that caused the legacy damage.


“I’m probably down about 10 grand in medical bills since I retired and that is only going to get more whether it is through scans, injections, treatments, medication,” he said. “I think I need my ankle fusing, I think I have three bulging discs in my back, there’s something wrong with my wrist. So yeah, it’s one of those things that keeps constantly happening and there is not a lot you can do about it sadly.

“I wouldn’t change playing rugby, it gave me a livelihood and obviously there are people in way worse conditions than me who have finished. But the hidden side to it, it’s difficult, it’s emotionally hard, it’s medically very difficult. Some players fully escape unscathed and feel better after stopping doing something, I have to be super-active otherwise I feel worse.

“No insurance company will touch you. The one thing about an insurance company is that the last thing they ever want to do is to pay out and half my stuff would be excluded so there is no point getting it. My forearm they may insure but other than that they are not doing anything for me,” he continued, going to outline a stark contrast in the level of aftercare in the Premiership and what occurs in Ireland.

“I spoke to Rory Best and he got everything fixed,” revealed Haskell. “They look after you very well in Ireland. I was very impressed by how they looked after him, let him get everything he needed to get fixed and helped him rehab and get looked after. We don’t do that over here.

“If you can get an organisation together and say to players that every month we are going to take X-amount of your salary and put it into a fund that you can then access after you finish playing as a medical fund it would be important. The clubs can pay into it a little bit, or even just invest in Restart to stop them from being a hand-to-mouth organisation would be pretty useful.

“There are lots of things that can be done better because it is a business we are in, a business of entertainment and elitism, and if you don’t succeed and don’t achieve you are out the door. But we can still do a little more to look after players on the way out. I certainly would have paid into a fund but it is difficult because when you are young someone comes in and goes oh listen, this is going to happen you sort of go, whatever old guy, it’s not going to happen to me and then suddenly you are that old guy.”

Haskell popping his head up above the parapet to support another cause – the Progressive Rugby group and their concussion concerns – was also informative. “I’d a good conversation with (World Rugby chairman) Bill Beaumont. We had a one-on-one call and he has the appetite to help fix things.

“I didn’t realise he retired due to concussion himself so that was very interesting. There are some good meetings lined up, things have progressed. Concussion at the moment hasn’t touched my life and if I did have any mental health problems, I’m not sure anyone would notice. But essentially I wanted to raise awareness because some of the rule changes were unnecessary, like taking away the three weeks (mandatory layoff).

Restart Rugby
What Restart are hoping to achieve with their awareness campaign

“I understand why they did it but we should be more cautious. Lots of things need to be taken out of players’ hands. Concussion needs to be reduced in training because I don’t think there is any need for it (to happen there). We are making some progress. It’s slow and steady wins the race but everyone is certainly making the right noises.”

Haskell has done that in another area, the release of his debut music track providing an adrenaline rush that was equivalent to hearing he would make an England debut in 2007. “I sit here today pretty much feeling like I have never played rugby which is bizarre,” he explained. “I have tried lots of things and I’m quite excited by life but it was definitely simpler being a rugby player and I do miss the competitive element.

“But my book What A Flanker, having that released and becoming a Sunday Times bestseller and people absolutely loving it, I’m not going to get on my high horse and said that I actually helped anyone but I had hundreds of messages from people saying I was having a hard time in lockdown, this really cheered me up.

“Then the music production, to have my first track released and to hear it played on Kiss FM and some of the best DJs in the world playing it was very exciting and probably reduced me back to the same kid that got a call for England selection. It was the same sensation, you jump around the house with a bottle of champagne listening to Majestical Kiss FM playing my song (Make You Feel). It was a pretty special day.”

Broadening horizons was always a Haskell characteristic, seeing him play club rugby in France, Japan and New Zealand before returning to the Premiership and then going on to become a 2017 Lions tourist, a wanderlust he has never regretted. “It’s an amazing thing to broaden your horizons, to experience different cultures and to test yourself. These are all prerequisites for anybody wanting to achieve anything in life and push the boundaries.

“Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and I managed to pull it off at the time. I got slated by everybody under the sun but the quote I live by is the best revenge is living well and while they were all fussing and writing their columns, I was eating foie gras in Paris, sipping an espresso and playing alongside Sergio Parisse, or I was in Tokyo eating ramen with Ma’a Nonu, or I was in New Zealand diving with Jamie Joseph.”

Imagine, though, if social media was the thing it currently is now a decade ago and the reaction that the globetrotting escapades of Haskell would have attracted. It was bad enough with the odd old snail mail. “The funniest thing anyone ever sent me was a piece of toilet paper with a note written on it saying, James, this is for your whiffy banter which I thought was quite amusing.”

Now, though, following a recent online spat concerning his dog he has sworn himself off ever engaging with the keyboard warriors. “It’s the worst thing we have created for ourselves and it is going to cause way more problems,” reckoned Haskell.

“As a business tool and a place where you can control your own PR, great. If it is going to sell something and build a business it is perfect. Any other reason, if you don’t do any of those things, get off it. Everybody across the board has just seen the toxicity.

“The world is in a real state of flux at the moment, you have cancel culture, the perpetually offended, it is a very difficult place to navigate. What we have forgotten is that it is fine to disagree and how arrogant do you have to be to think that people aren’t going to disagree with your opinions, but we just don’t do it in a civilised manner and then what we try to do is get you cancelled.

“I stupidly every now and then forget that you can’t beat stupidity and I join in. I try to make light of stupid people and what I forget is that I have way more to lose than they do and you are just always going to lose. Every now and then I get a little carried away and I end up coming off worse, so I have decided I’m never responding to anybody ever again on there.

“Life is much more fun when you’re not on social media. You have got to consistently remember that it has given a voice to people that don’t deserve one. When the average IQ in the UK is 100, there are a lot of people underneath and decisions of brands, businesses and parliament are based on what these people think and you just don’t need to listen to it.

“To a young player I’d say block, delete and move on and don’t ever engage, just ignore but also be prepared for people who are going to go out of their way to tell you are s*** and you should hang yourself and retire, which I have many a time, but you have just got to keep reassuring yourself that those people are not bright enough to realise what they are doing.

“That is why we need to bring in a law to make everybody accountable. No anonymity on social media, you have got to put in your passport details, put in your social security number or you can’t have it. Age similar, 16 or under get off it, you are not allowed on it – but they will never do it because it is big business for them.

“I should be very grateful. For every four negative comments, I am getting thousands of positives. But this is what I mean, the mental side, people are built to focus on negativity. That is why a big brand who is in a campaign with someone, three people go ‘this is crap’ or whatever and then they will panic and take it down because three sounds like 300 online and it’s not. I get a load of really, really positive stuff and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.”

  • To learn more about Restart and the work of the RPA, click here



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