James Haskell Q&A: Telegraph readers put their questions to England rugby legend

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·27 min read
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James Haskell portrait - David Rose
James Haskell portrait - David Rose

Read exclusive James Haskell book extracts, only in Telegraph Sport.

11:31 AM

That's a wrap

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. Hopefully you found James Haskell's answers both illuminating and entertaining.

11:29 AM

Should Burgess have played in the World Cup?

The final question of the day comes courtesy of Andrew Homer: For the 2015 RWC, should we have left Sam Burgess at Bath to continue learning rugby union, kept Brad Barritt at 12 with Jonathan Joseph, or dropped Luther Burrell at 13?

James Haskell:

Firstly, what people forget about professional sport is it's a team sport. Yes, certain individuals like Semi Radradra make a difference, but Sam Burgess was not that person. He was one of the best league players ever to come to the Premiership, one of the toughest competitors - but he was learning a new sport.

It’s very hard to do that. But the whole World Cup did not come down to him. If someone picked him, he was going to play. The whole idea was to get him over for the World Cup and ultimately it didn’t pay off and Sam was made a scapegoat, when actually, he worked just as hard and was a great team man. And actually was one of the players who did speak up against some of the suggestions, because Stuart had unbelievable respect for him, because he was Sam Burgess.

He was unfairly criticised. It’s not my place to talk about selection, but Burgess on his day made some big moves and I have a lot of respect for him. Pinning your hopes on one man, when there was bigger stuff to sort out, was wrong.

11:26 AM

How to get hench for rugby

Riley Humphreys: If there was just one muscle group you could train exclusively for your rugby life, what would it be?

James Haskell:

It has to be your lower body. Your ability to power drive, run, all comes from the legs, so had to be that area.

11:23 AM

Are players vocal about selection?

Neil Carpenter: Do professional rugby players challenge coaches on tactics and even selection if they disagree with coaches or is it just about getting selected - hope that isn't a naive question?

James Haskell:

I think when you get to a certain situation you challenge things, but it depends. There is a huge amount of ego with all men and sportspeople are no different. Lots of people make noise about wanting to be challenged and honest conversations, but there’s still someone who is your boss. I’ve worked with coaches who ask for feedback, you provide it, and then they’ll snap back with: ‘You messed up a couple of lineouts, worry about your own job’, which helps no one.

It takes a brave person. I’m scared of Eddie Jones! I didn’t need to challenge people on certain things because I was too busy trying to make myself the best player I could be. Contrary to what people think, I was a dedicated professional paying my own physio and nutritionist. I would go out and spend hours doing extra tackling, extra breakdown work with George Smith, extra passing with Jonny Wilkinson.

There are ways of doing meetings where you can say: ‘I don’t think this is quite right’, but I know for example in the England team, George Ford and Owen Farrell have a real driving factor around the way they want to play, and Eddie Jones is very good with that. In certain environments you have to make sure with what you are saying that you have the facts right, because otherwise people do snap back.

11:19 AM

Who would you like to have played alongside?

Murray Laird: Going back in time, who is the player you would have most wanted to play with, and who was the sportsman you would have wanted to stand beside and watch - e.g. Muhammad Ali in his ring walks and ringside?

James Haskell:

I would have loved to play alongside Jerry Collins, and I think Jerome Kaino and Richie McCaw. I would have really liked to spend time with them and work with them. I never got to play for the Barbarians and I know that’s where those friendships are formed. Any of those players would have been brilliant.

As for the sportsperson, that’s a very good question. Someone like Floyd Mayweather. I don’t like everything he does, but you do not stay on top of your game without being that dedicated to training and that focussed, I would love to see that. Michael Jordan too, to see how he operated and to be around someone that talented would be really eye-opening.

11:17 AM

What went wrong under Lancaster in 2015?

Rupen Shah: The 2015 World Cup, what went so wrong under Stuart Lancaster?

James Haskell:

Firstly, Stuart was one man. It had nothing to do with him solely. He is one of the hardest-working coaches I have ever seen and cared immensely about what he was doing.

The issues were on a number of levels. Selection, team dynamics, which didn’t work. We had a goal to be fitness-focussed, but the likes of Eddie and Clive Woodward came out after and said we weren’t fit enough. But I’ve never been fitter, in terms of running. We worked so hard.

But there wasn’t the authenticity, the dynamism, internal leadership, there wasn’t fun. If you have a whole load of alpha males, you need balance, to go to different people. We didn’t play ruthless, winning rugby. There was always talk of development. It was wrong. We hadn’t beaten the southern hemisphere sides consistently, and everyone went insane, as though just because we were at home we were going to win it. Fans should take a bit of blame for hyping everything up and going mad, as sports fans do.

Stuart missed a trick in the way he communicated with the players, the way he talked about leadership. But he had a very difficult job because after 2011, he had to essentially re-educate the public that rugby players were not a bunch of entitled a--------, and he wanted to recapture the imagination. He did that better than anyone ever could, and put a lot of good things in place, but it was never going to be a super winning environment. With Eddie, it was a case of cutting the humble chat and the scripts, and now let’s talk about winning and not be apologetic. That was the difference.

11:13 AM

What was your best position?

Tim Smart: Did you consider yourself more of a No 8, or a 6 1/2?

James Haskell:

Early on in my career, people thought I was going to be a No 8 and the next Dallaglio. I never lived up to that and didn’t want to - I wanted to be the best James Haskell, not a poor man’s Dallaglio. To be honest, I enjoyed playing No 8 and regret not playing it more, but I think I was probably better on the flanks. It was down to the back row I was playing in and what the coach wanted.

People are too obsessed with shirt numbers. It’s so easy to rattle fans by saying something like Jack Nowell could play flanker, and all the purists start going mad. Eddie Jones does it to watch them all lose their minds. Which is 100 per cent what I would do if I was head coach, just tie fans and journalists up in knots. The only problem is if you don’t win, your fall from grace is far quicker. But if you win, it’s genius.

11:10 AM

Is Eddie Jones the right man for England?

Chris Gray: James, just how brutal is it training and playing for Eddie Jones? Can you see why he seems to be only very successful for the first two years in posts he has had, and do you think it was the right decision to stick with him after the World Cup (I personally do by the way)?

James Haskell:

I 100 per cent think Eddie was the only good choice for England coach. Professional environments are about repeated behaviours of success, and comfort breeds failure. Some people can’t hack that, but that’s why there are millionaires in life and people who quit under pressure, and why the world isn’t equal - it’s the same on the rugby field.

Eddie has been doing this for a long time and is the first to admit that he has not always got it right. But he’s honed his skills. I never saw him raise his voice once with the England team. I know he raised it to a few people behind closed doors, but I never saw it. I felt the training methodology, the aspiration environment - that’s how you win. 

What New Zealand have that we don’t have is everyone wants to be an All Black. The greatest thing you can do in New Zealand is be an All Black. It counts for so much. I’ve seen videos where the whole family are gathered together and a new All Black calls up in tears to let them know he’s made the squad.

We don’t have the same thing here in England. It’s obviously an amazing honour, but it’s not the national sport. If in New Zealand it’s the greatest honour to have that shirt, then in England, it’s a big honour but you have to create an environment that breeds winning, and Eddie has done that. You lose some people along the way because they just weren’t good enough, or tough enough, or occasionally they slip through the net.

Sports fans always lose any rationale after some defeats, saying ‘sack him’, ‘sack her’. Who would you have brought in over Eddie Jones? I was in four other England environments and his was far and away the best. By light years. To the point we sat around and thought: ‘Oh my god, I would have traded 30 of my other caps with the other lot just for a few more months under Eddie’.

11:06 AM

Do you wish you had played more at openside?

Thomas Furber: You played by some distance the best rugby of your England career at openside flanker for England on the tour of Australia in 2016. Do you think you would have had an even more successful career if you’d played the majority of your time there as opposed to shifting between blindside and No 8?

James Haskell:

Firstly, this plays into the hands of what everyone always says, that I wasn’t a seven because with England they think of Neil Back, Peter Winterbottom. The back row is always about complimenting each other.

People are always quite scathing about some of my England performances, making out that I never played a good game until that Australia tour. Whilst that was a peak, I had other good games, and other games that might not have been as showy but where I played better. The 2012 tour to South Africa, the Port Elizabeth Test which was a 14-14 draw, I made 35 tackles and that was probably my defining defensive performance. Heyneke Meyer, the Springbok coach who I had never met before, came up to me afterwards and said I was the difference between the two sides, after we had been absolutely drilled in the previous two Tests. That was a much bigger compliment.

The Australia tour, I played well because I had a coach who respected me and backed me, and gave me all the tools to be the best version of myself. I really enjoyed what I was doing. There were no preconceptions or intimidation, Eddie could deal with and wanted characters. He knew that I was always going to be one of the hardest-working guys in the group. All he had to do was wind me up, point me in the right direction, put an arm around me and I would run through walls for him. That Australia tour was great, but I didn’t ever sit back and reflect on it, which might be a big regret because I moved on very quickly, hurt my toe, retired and didn’t savour it. But really nice fans still come up to me now and say those were some of my best games. 

In terms of back-row balance, the numbers on your back are relevant. It’s much more about what you are asked to do as a player and how you want to do it. Had I been treated better and coaches had understood that it wasn’t rocket science to get the best out of me, I probably would have played better. But that shows the importance of the mental aspect, which is a story for another day.

11:04 AM

Pictorial interlude

haskell - GETTY IMAGES
haskell - GETTY IMAGES

11:03 AM

Which club did you enjoy playing for most?

Phil Richards: Playing for which club gave you the best all-round experience in both life, and your playing career?

James Haskell:

I’m not trying to give a safe answer, but every single team did that for me but in so many different ways. 

France had the big Heineken Cup games and the culture, and it was the first time I’d really moved away from my family. I’d just broken up with my girlfriend, Ollie Phillips moved into my place and we went on an adventure. It taught me about being resilient. I’d been spoiled by the professionalism at Wasps. I pitched up to a French club and they were all smoking, when training finished they just left, would definitely win their home games but not the away ones. That’s why it breaks some people and the Irish and Welsh boys only last a year out there before folding up and coming home - because they are so used to living around people. France was a big test for me. I would come home after training with the coach telling me I was s--- and going to sack me and have a long, hard look at myself. 

Japan was complete isolation, looking after yourself and being resilient. New Zealand, I couldn’t have been further away from friends and family. Each one was so uniquely different it developed me in all areas.

11:00 AM

Any plans to move back into rugby?

Jim Wallace: What next, James? Your podcasts are very enlightening and full of ideas... we need you to move rugby forward and develop.

James Haskell:

I have the podcast, my DJing, I do a lot of speaking and corporate work. But interestingly enough, despite the success of our two podcasts - the first of which had 16 million downloads, while the second, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Rugby’, has recently been the number one podcast in the world - I’ve had no offers to do any mainstream rugby work, so there is no appetite for me to appear on TV. They go with the same old faces, same old dry stuff, same format. I don’t know if I am seen as too controversial or not intelligent enough, but they keep going with the safe options.

I’ll keep doing ‘The Good, The Bad and The Rugby’ and if at some point it goes a different way then that’s fine. I loved Sky, and watching Alex Payne doing ‘The Rugby Club’ was great, but why do you need people pitchside in suits giving the same dry answers? You need people who have been in and around the squads and have a personality, which was why when Dylan Hartley was a pundit for the France-England game on the BBC, it was a complete breath of fresh air.

10:57 AM

Is Richard Madeley a prat?

Brian O'Sullivan: Is Richard Madeley a prat?

James Haskell:

Considering he is the Telegraph’s Agony Uncle, the father of my wife, part of one of the most successful TV duos, a best-selling author and an all-round lovely bloke, I would say - absolutely not. But, I would caveat that by saying that someone who asks that type of question is the definition of a prat, Mr Brian O’Sullivan.

10:54 AM

Haskell v Dallaglio - who wins?

Andrew Parfitt: In a fistfight between you and Lawrence Dallaglio, who would win?

I think Lawrence would think he would win, because he sort of had that aura about him of being a Vinnie Jones-style mockney gangster. I’d actually be much more concerned about fighting a Josh Lewsey, a Gareth Delve, a Chris Hala'ufia, than fighting Lawrence. If Lawrence catches you with a massive meat slab of a hand, then, obviously, you are going to wear that for some time. But I’m not sure he actually knows what to do with it.

As the senior player, and much more successful, I would probably let him win. And then run him over in the car park when he wasn’t looking. We never had any scraps in training, however. I had fights with Ali McKenzie and Trevor Leota, but never Lawrence. It was never like that. He was always very physical, got stuck in, but was not that kind of bloke. He would give me a few looks that could kill, but he was my hero growing up and I had the utmost respect for him.

10:52 AM

Favourite digger?

James Crone: Which digger would you consider over a JCB?

James Haskell:

I wouldn’t pick one over a JCB. They are definitely my favourite.

10:48 AM

Is elite rugby now only for big beasts?

Ian Veal: Hi James, do you think the game is now only for a specific somatotype? A game for beasts at the elite end?

James Haskell:

Being big doesn’t make you a good player. It really doesn’t. As people, sports fans, we always judge a book by its cover. If I show you someone really athletic, you think he must be a good player. But what if he can’t tackle or pass? It doesn’t matter if he has a Rolls Royce chassis on him if he can’t do anything.

People are not appreciating what’s happening in the game, because every team has fitness trainers and conditioners, and all they are trying to do is one up each other. At Wasps when we won everything, we were the first team to have proper conditioners. Then Leicester took a protege of our high performance coach, Craig White, to Welford Road, and then Bath took someone, then London Irish.

Now, every team is fit, and the margins are so small. Where does the pursuit of trying to get the upper hand go? Bigger players. But for young people, if you can’t do the core skills of the game, that should be a priority. There’s no point squatting 300kg if you do nothing about your defence. The game is not trying to breed mega mutant players, it’s just that every area at the top is squeezed. The next area I think is the mental aspect. The team to really enhance that, along with the strength and conditioning and everything else, will be the ultimate team.

10:45 AM

What went wrong in 2019 World Cup final?

Simon Rice: Hi James, as an England supporter of some 50 years, I’d like to know what was your take on the 2019 World Cup final - was it just a wrongly briefed, tactical calamity, or the fact that the Boks wanted it more?

James Haskell:

Fans need to drop this rubbish about ‘wanting it more’. It’s not about ‘wanting it more’ - everyone wants to win. That England team wanted to win.

Rugby is about positives and negatives, that’s all it comes down to. Every team makes mistakes, every game has mistakes otherwise it wouldn’t flow. You have to make sure if you make a mistake that your next action is a positive one.

When you are dealing with egos, nerves, people want to fix things and sometimes mess up even more, and suddenly you are deep in your own 22. While the other team might have a bit more composure, go through a bit of a purple patch, one or two things might come off for them.

There are not many teams in the world who can spot what is happening and just stop it. Teams are like oil tankers, it takes half an hour for them just to slow down. South Africa played far better on the day, every negative was backed up with two positives, while every negative for England was backed up with another negative. That’s not England playing badly - it’s not getting the composure right, players forcing things, nerves. But the ‘not wanting it more’ idea is s---, it’s lazy.

10:42 AM

Your vital statistics when you finished school?

David Llewelyn Davies: How old, tall and heavy were you when you left Wellington College?

James Haskell:

I was 18, 6ft 3in and weighed 103kg (16 stone 2lbs).

10:39 AM

Why didn't you speak up during Lancaster era?

Ian Mason: Being one of the more senior players in the England setup, and the management always banging on about leadership in the group, surely you should have shown that leadership and addressed the problems within the squad to Stuart Lancaster. Why didn't you?

James Haskell:

It’s one of my biggest regrets, as I said in the book, but I wasn’t given the respect or the platform to do that. I was not regarded as a leader. I was always made to feel on the outside of the circle and I chose my desire to play for England over making a stand.

But, I did go to the England psychologist, Bill Beswick, sat him down and said: ‘If you don’t sort the dynamics of this team out in the build-up to the World Cup, then the wheels are going to fall off.’ He said he agreed, went back to the management with some of my feedback, and was met with resistance across the board. So my conscience is clear. I went to the guy who was meant to do it by proxy.

It takes me a long time to realise that I need things to work on, because the male ego is a real thing and men are often too proud to listen to criticism. I spoke to Bill, voiced my concerns, but I was already on borrowed time in the squad. Yet it’s one of my biggest regrets for not standing up. In rugby everyone talks about leadership, but it’s a teacher-pupil relationship. Some people ask for honesty but are not prepared to hear it.

10:36 AM

Will you ever be able to run again?

Steve Burrow: Is there any chance of you being able to run again?

James Haskell:

I don’t know. It’s something I’m actually working on, I’ve just started working with a new trainer to get into a position where I can do that. It is going to take a bit of time, but fingers crossed, it’s a challenge. I just need to sort my back and my ankle out.

I have no desire to do what a lot of players do when they retire and run Ironmans and all that weird stuff. I already have a Wattbike, but my favourite bit of equipment is a Versaclimber , which Dolph Lundgren uses in ‘Rocky IV’. They are unbelievable. 

10:33 AM

Has anyone wound you up more than Marler?

David Gates: Has anyone wound you up as much as Joe Marler did in the Quins game when you played for Wasps?

James Haskell:

No, I’ve been wound up way more. But I was a lot more subtle about dealing with it. In my book I talk about Jamie Cudmore - whenever Clermont played my side Stade Francais, he and I would always end up in a fight at some point. I would go into a breakdown and, on purpose, headbutt him, and next time he would come in with a swinging arm and punch me in the head.

The Joe Marler one was because I hadn’t played in six weeks. Everyone says I lost control but that wasn’t the case - my version of losing control is just punching people. It was because Marler is the ultimate wind-up merchant, and we’re also really good mates. I wanted to give him a little bit of a shot and went for the vulcan death grip. He’s a lovely guy, but also f------ irritating.

What people don’t see is that after my first ball carry, following weeks out, he tackled me, got up, trod on my leg, stepped on my head. Joe is the master of it. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, I just hadn’t played for a while. The fact was the referee did nothing about it and in previous games I’ve thought: ‘If they don’t start doing their job, I’m going to do something.’ Which has led to Wayne Barnes going ‘You can’t say that to me!’ and me replying, ‘I bloody well can!’

10:30 AM

Will players stop using drugs to bulk up?

Our first question comes courtesy of Peter Corrigan: "You could argue the initiatives in law changes to keep the ball in play for longer will lead to players trading bulk for aerobic fitness; do you think less bulk will reduce the trade in bodybuilding drugs in rugby?"

James Haskell:

There are no bodybuilding drugs in rugby. Next question.

10:26 AM

Webchat time

Right then. This webchat is about to begin so it's time to put some questions - submitted by Telegraph subscribers over the past week - to James Haskell.

haskell - GETTY IMAGES
haskell - GETTY IMAGES

10:19 AM

Rugby broke my body - my fingers pop out and I can't run

One final Haskell extract sees him discuss the physical pain inflicted on him by a professional rugby career. Here's a snippet:

Before one international, I was in so much pain but unwilling to go and tell anyone that I ended up giving myself an anti-inflammatory injection in the buttock in the changing-room toilets. It was 100 per cent legal, and only a Voltarol jab, but it felt very wrong. I didn’t want to be sticking needles in my a---, and I probably should not have played that day, but the desire to represent your club or country burns very bright. You don’t want to let someone else have that shirt.One coach whom I had worked with during some age-group rugby with England, who went on to coach in the Premiership for many years, had a famous saying: “What’s wrong, chief? Nothing a bit of pills and tape won’t fix.”

10:10 AM

Credibility graphs, no drinking and angry coaches

The next Haskell extract relates to England's 2015 World Cup campaign which, you may remember, did not go brilliantly. Here's an extract:

This was the most David Brent moment I have ever experienced in my life. Stuart called me in for a meeting with him and he asked me how, in my opinion, I was doing within the squad. I said really well. He asked if he had shown me the credibility graph. I said no, but sensing this was some horrific management jargon, I told him he didn’t have to. He insisted. He drew a graph with the x-axis denoting time and the y-axis credibility.There was a line across the top, which was where you were credible. His example of someone who was really credible was Brad Barritt. There was also a line below showing where you weren’t credible, and in this case his example was Chris Ashton after some discipline problems and bans. He said he would show me where I was. I thought, please don’t.He drew this super-excruciatingly slow line that made progress towards the credible line but stopped an inch off.He said that I was nearly credible. I looked around for a hidden camera, expecting him to point to himself with double-finger guns and say, ‘If you want to be in the hot seat like me, all you have to be is credible.’ That’s when he truly lost me. He did not understand me at all, neither how to motivate me nor get the best out of me. 

And here's our chief sports writer Oliver Brown's take on the Lancaster fiasco from 2015. A snippet:

Culture: it has been the one unifying mantra of Lancaster’s underwhelming reign. He uses the word so often that he should consider deputising for Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show.Take this nugget, from his first public statement as interim coach in 2011: “We recognise the responsibility to get the culture right.”Again, in 2014, he argued: “You cannot have a strong team without having a strong culture.” By the time of England’s doomed World Cup campaign, there was something faintly North Korean about his refrain. “The bottom layer is culture.” Lancaster might convince himself otherwise, but it is all PR gibberish.

10:01 AM

Shooting rabbits, 'dwarf-tossing' and hotel maids

If it has escaped your attention, Telegraph Sport has been serialising James Haskell's new book 'What a Flanker' for the past week, so what better way to whet the appetite for this Q&A than a few of those extracts, starting with: Shooting rabbits, 'dwarf-tossing' and hotel maids – the real story of England's 2011 World Cup disaster

After we beat Argentina 13–9, we headed to Queenstown for some R&R. I spent the first night Skyping my then girlfriend while some of the lads headed to a nightclub called Altitude for their ‘Mad Midget Weekender’, which meant revellers could combine their drinking with a spot of dwarf tossing.The lads had a bit too much to drink but there was not a single dwarf tossed by an England player. Unfortunately, the nightclub posted pictures of lads rolling about on the floor with dwarves on their Facebook page and a bouncer sold CCTV footage to a journalist.When the story appeared, the dwarf-tossing played second fiddle to a  stitch-up of Mike Tindall, who had apparently spent the evening “flirting with a gorgeous blonde”. Utter b------s.What irritated me was that the Irish and Welsh squads went on the p--- far more than the English. Apparently, the Irish were in and out of Altitude for two days (the bar had to close and re-stock to just to accommodate them), and one of their star players had to be carried out at 8am. But the narrative was that England were a bunch of entitled w------, while the Irish and Welsh were plucky, fun-loving underdogs just taking a break from the rigours of the tournament. 

09:51 AM

Good morning

And welcome to our question and answer session with England rugby legend James Haskell. It will kick off at 11.30am.