James Haskell is a Lion who, in his own words, “got in through the back door”, but after hearing him hold court in Christchurch this week one thing was clear. He wants to leave this 2017 tour through the front door, as a winning Test Lion against the All Blacks.
Haskell, who was called up as a late replacement for Billy Vunipola, is one of the old men of the party. At 32, the Wasps and England flanker’s only senior in the 41-man squad is Irish hooker Rory Best (34) – but when it comes to enthusiasm and ambition, the ebullient Haskell is one of those characters who is forever young.
With the tourists on the skids after a bad start, his presence is priceless. Haskell shrugs off the bombardment of criticism following a disappointing win over a bunch of Kiwi part-timers, and then a midweek defeat in Auckland by the Blues. He says this is just the start, and that the Lions have their eyes fixed on the big prize – the Test series – more than the skirmishes building towards it.
It carries weight because he is a senior pro who has been there and done it. He has travelled the rugby globe, making his mark with Wasps before continuing his apprenticeship with the Highlanders in Super Rugby, Stade Francais in the Top 14, and the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan. He also has a Six Nations Grand Slam and a European Cup title in his locker, along with 75 England caps.
It is typical Haskell to accentuate the positives, and it is why he has a reputation of being a good man in a tight spot, the archetype of a “good tourist”, upbeat and, above all, irrepressible. An individual who kindles hope in others and lights a fire of self-belief within the group.
Yes, I admit being sceptical about his selection. With the best will in the world you cannot inspire team-mates when you are not at the top of your game, and since returning from a long lay-off due to a broken big toe sustained during England’s whitewash over Australia last summer, Haskell has not come close to the barnstorming form that made him the player of the tour. He has been a muted, hobbled version of his best self.
However, Haskell has a habit of confounding his critics, and when he made his Lions debut at Eden Park on Wednesday night there were signs that he is stirring. A couple of charges scattered Blues defenders like chaff, and he thumped into the close quarter contact, tackling with conviction.
Haskell says he was primed. “I haven’t been that nervous before a game for a long time. I thought most things I’d got my head round, so I didn’t really feel those kind of nerves. When I walked into the changing room and saw my shirt hanging up there, and my name, this was real. New Zealand is a very intense place to go and play, it always has that certain smell, certain atmosphere about it.”
He reveals that the intensity was ramped-up unexpectedly in an incident involving blood and iron just before kick-off. “I was a bit upset that someone dropped an elbow on top of me – maybe Courtney (Lawes) – in the warm up, and I got four staples in my head. Actual staples, before the game had even started. When the Doc said he was going to staple my head I thought it was just a euphemism for stitching it. But no, he actually got a stapler out, so that was a bit of a shock to the system.”
Haskell will almost certainly get another run against his old mates the Highlanders in Dunedin this week, and despite being benched after 53 minutes, and his frustration at the 22-16 loss to the Blues, he adds: “I thought I acquitted myself well, and I’m getting back to where I want to be.”
As for the toe trouble, he says it is manageable. “It’s a constant thing you just have to put up with. I was out for eight months – that’s a long time to be out of any sport, the longest in my career. I also got a bit older as well. I’ve been playing since I was 17, so I’ve got a few miles on the clock now.”
Those miles translate into a knowledge of New Zealand rugby, and how to adapt to its culture and conditions, which are unrivalled in the squad. So, how does Haskell think the Lions should combat New Zealand?
“Over here we’ve got to react quickly. There’s a lot of analysis being done of the opposition. You also have to focus on yourself to deliver what you can deliver. If you try to plug all the holes you can spend all your time worrying about what other people are doing, and not impose yourself.
“It’s not about containment. It’s about playing in a (particular) way – and it’s important that everyone on this Lions tour has gone, ‘we’re going to play this way, this is going to work’. You can’t look at opposition like New Zealand and go, ‘right, we’ll deal with that’, because while you’re trying to do that they’re picking you apart.”
He continues: “Against New Zealand you have to be super-disciplined, very direct in what you’re doing, you have to play for the full 80 minutes. You have to execute everything you’re doing at the top of your game, without any looseness. What they do is not rocket science. It’s execution, very simply, very direct with speed, intensity and accuracy, and they consistently do it for 80 minutes. You turn your back and they’ve got the skill set to punish you.”
Haskell says that the Lions have to bring the physical intensity and attrition of the game in Europe to this New Zealand tour. “Physicality-wise, (against the Blues) we got stuck in, and when you get to international level it’s a levelling factor. Every time you play an international game it’s always at the highest physicality level, and then it comes down to individual skills, game plan execution, composure, and discipline.”
“You have to play to your strengths. You can’t try to play a different style, and the way the (Lions) coaches are coaching, and the way the boys are in the squad, physicality is an underlying factor. You have to impose yourself on these teams. I’m not saying it’s the ‘go-to’, but it’s certainly part of what we’re trying to do. If you look at the way we played against the Blues, set-piece wise we did very well.”
Haskell says the squad also must not let media reports dominate the agenda. “I’ve seen bits and pieces that the Lions got off to a rocky start, but I’m astounded as to how well the boys have done with such limited time together. The thing is that a game has been put to bed, things have been addressed, and it’s about the next stage and looking forward to the Highlanders. We’ve already got a team preparing for that… it’s non-stop activity.”
That suits Haskell down to the ground. “I’m as restless as ever to achieve, and having had a bit of a taste I need some more game time. You are constantly looking at, ‘I made that mistake, how can I correct that?’ I’m a big believer that you get one opportunity. I see people who’ve retired or finished, and you’re a long time retired. If you ask them a lot of the time they say the real world is crap.”
His outlook as a rugby pro is straightforward: “If a body gives out, that’s one thing, but if you’ve still got ability to play at a good level – and you are there on merit – then you just want to give it 100 per cent until someone taps you on the shoulder and says, listen, it’s time to retire. But there are 41 lads here fighting against the best rugby nation in the world, and we’re going from place to place every three days. What’s there not to be restless about?”
He is just as candid about his own ambitions as the self-styled Lion who got in through the back door.
“For me it’s never about taking part. If it was just about taking part, you take the most money, go to a club, get beaten week in week out, and be comfortable with that. That doesn’t motivate me in any way, shape or form. I made peace that I wasn’t going to be in the Lions squad for whatever reason – but the moment I got here I wanted to compete for a Test spot like everybody.
“That’s what it’s about. It’s not about just getting your kit, however exciting and however much I was reduced to a 16-year-old again.
“I’m just not built to sit here and have coffees. I want to push myself as hard as I can. If I’m not good enough, or I don’t reach that level, that’s one thing – but I will always fight to the best I can and keep going.
“If I wasn’t here I would be in Argentina fighting my way on that tour. Wherever I go I want to try to keep learning, and keep making the most of whatever limited talent I have, and get there. That means, basically, I’ll do whatever it takes to get to that Test spot.”
Haskell’s never-give-up mantra is a timely rallying cry for a Lions 2017 squad in search of a crucial momentum shift.
All it requires is for his team-mates to tap into the reservoir of willpower and confidence that underpins it.