Ambition is a restless thing and, for all the energy he channels into off-field pursuits – ranging from DJing to an online fitness business – James Haskell has been ferociously dedicated to his sport for well over a decade.
Though team-mates have teasingly suggested that an eight-month lay-off following foot surgery last summer gave him enough holiday for an entire career, the reality is that Haskell spent that period grafting through two separate rehabilitation sessions each day.
A week’s break in Dubai after the twin setbacks of England’s defeat by Ireland and Wasps’ Champions Cup exit against Leinster, both within a fortnight at the same Dublin venue, has therefore brought welcome refreshment. Haskell returns at blindside for Premiership table-toppers Wasps on Sunday in Bristol. While shades of frustration linger, he can look back philosophically and frankly.
“Disappointment is obviously the overriding feeling,” he says. “You know what’s going to happen when you go over to Ireland but it’s another thing trying to deal with it. With both England and Wasps, we just didn’t get it right on the day.
“Both Ireland and Leinster played a direct, simple game that they executed very well. They played in the right areas of the field, we weren’t disciplined and didn’t get our game plan right, didn’t adjust quickly enough. The Aviva is not going to make it onto my list of top stadiums in the world.
“Personally, I thought in the Ireland game I acquitted myself well. Against Leinster, to be honest with you, I had been struggling with a bad back and a bad stomach. I felt pretty terrible going into it. But I’m not making excuses, that’s what it’s about – you have to dig in. I tried to put my body on the line and lead from a defensive point of view, but it wasn’t enough.”
Seemingly back to the barnstorming form of 2013, Sean O’Brien was a prominent figure during the 32-17 victory for Leinster that muscled Wasps out of Europe. Warren Gatland has always suggested that displays in knockout rounds would sway his selection for the British and Irish Lions squad, so some have done the sums and surmised that O’Brien has barged past Haskell as an abrasive back-row option.
If that proves to be the case, Haskell, who turned 32 at the start of this month, may never get another chance. But ambitions also adjust, as he is honest enough to articulate.
“Being selected for a Lions tour turns a good player into a great player,” Haskell explains. “That’s the only way to look at it. Anyone who goes on a tour can have their career defined by it.
“I saw a quote from Billy Vunipola saying players are always thinking about it. I love Bill, but it’s easier for him because he’s one of those players who are right up there. He’s in the mix, he’s a Lions-quality player. For someone like myself, I will define my career by winning silverware.
“To go on a Lions tour would be a dream come true, but I’m not sure it’s going to be a reality. That means I have to define myself and be comfortable with putting everything I can into my game and into my life.
“If I had to finish playing rugby today, would I be happy that I’d given 100 per cent? Would I be happy that I’ve lived my life as I would have wanted? Would I be happy that I did everything on and off the field to maximise the opportunities I’ve had? I would be comfortable with that.
“Looking back to when we won the Grand Slam with England last year, in the cold light of day, nobody could take that away from us. It’s about silverware and winning, which is why I want to do that with Wasps this year and for however long I can keep playing.”
Another Six Nations triumph means Haskell already has one gong from this campaign. However, after growing up at Wasps in the mid-2000s as part of Gatland’s all-conquering ‘defence wins championships’ mantra, he knows Dai Young’s current crop must galvanise their high-scoring attack with something steelier as they look to the play-offs. Conceding over 30 points and at least four tries in each of their last three matches is a worrying trend.
Last Sunday’s 32-30 victory over Northampton was indebted to an escape act in the form of Matt Mullan’s last-gasp barge over the line. When Wasps were last crowned English champions under Ian McGeechan in 2008, beating Leicester Tigers 26-16 in the final at Twickenham, Haskell was a 23 year-old tearaway. He had ousted Joe Worsley to start alongside Tom Rees and Lawrence Dallaglio in the back row.
While injury and England duty mean this is only his fifth club appearance of the campaign, Haskell leads Wasps’ defensive operation in the same way that chop-tackling supremo Worsley once did. His pride is stinging from recent frailties.
“It’s just not acceptable,” Haskell finishes. “If we have any aspirations to winning silverware, we have to deal with our defence. When you play Premiership rugby week-in, week-out in the regular season, you put your best foot forward and you try to win. If your attack is scoring tries, that’s great.
“In finals rugby, when it’s Leinster away at the Aviva, when it’s a Grand Slam game for England away from home, when it’s the business end of the season, teams play direct, hard rugby with maximum intensity. It’s not rocket science.
“Defensive execution must be the focal point for that. We try to pride ourselves on that and it hasn’t been good enough. We’re all aware of that and if we want to win silverware, we’ll have to deal with it. We certainly don’t believe in letting in four tries as long as we score five. We don’t want anyone to score anything against us and we’re working flat out to rectify it.”
Haskell may not achieve the ‘greatness’ that a Lions tour might bring, but he is content and immersed in Wasps’ Premiership chase. Whatever happens next Wednesday, that race is heating up.