“I’m pretty aware people don’t like me,” says James Haskell with the brashness that some people revile him for on the day he launches his autobiography, What a Flanker.
Since being forced into retirement through injury in May 2019, Haskell has continued to put himself through the blender with a Mixed Martial Arts career (currently on hold), a stay in the I’m a Celebrity jungle, and a series of podcasts which dig into rugby past and present, and his personal life.
Now he has written a book, delving into the fiasco of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, taking guns into Pennyhill Park, team socials as a teenager in the great Wasps side of the 2000s, and how Stuart Lancaster worked the longest hours without reward in 2015.
“To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure my career warranted an autobiography when you have people like Eddie Jones and Sir Alex Ferguson talking about all the amazing things they have done – I just didn’t think anyone would be interested,” the 77-cap Haskell told The Rugby Paper.
“I was adamant that I did not want it to be an ordinary autobiography. We decided it would be a laugh, emotional, with short stories to get down to the nitty gritty.
“I didn’t want to do it while I was still playing because it is very difficult to speak up about things. Then I retired and it became something open to me, and I really enjoyed the process.”
As one third of The Good, the Bad and the Rugby podcast alongside Mike Tindall and Alex Payne, Haskell has a platform to speak his mind, although his opinions don’t go down well with everyone.
Living with the feeling of not being universally liked is a by-product of Haskell’s need to express himself, avoiding an insular existence that can come from the pressures of representing a club or the RFU that has led a number of rugby players into battles with mental health.
Asked where the pressure comes from Haskell replies: “It is the media, it is the fans. I think I have always divided opinion – and having an opinion in this day and age is not a good thing. If you stick your head above the parapet you are going to get chewed out.
“I went on Five Live recently and spoke about coronavirus in the UK and the crowds and everything else. In England coronavirus was 24th on the causes of death list for August yet we are treating it as if it is No 1. But you put that opinion out there and people come back saying ‘shut the f*** up you don’t know what you’re talking about’ and ‘stick to rugby you d***head’ – people get arsey about it.
“I’m aware I’m an acquired taste, I’m a bit brash and big, and it is all part and parcel of being a player – I don’t want to be boring.”
Life in rugby at the moment is anything but boring, with the Premiership season reaching its finale and the Autumn Internationals on the horizon.
Haskell believes criticism of the RFU is unfair with chief executive Bill Sweeney having had to make hard decisions such as making over 140 staff redundant in the face of £138m projected losses.
“It is a hard situation the RFU are dealing with,” Haskell says. “I like Bill Sweeney, I have a lot of time for him and think he is doing a good job. He is a good man and has made some cuts that I think have needed to happen for quite a while.
“Rugby is an expensive sport to run and the stakes are high across the sport. Most Premiership clubs have been precariously balanced for a long time and that is something that the public take for granted.
“For the grassroots clubs, who is going to help them out? They are all struggling but there just isn’t enough money. We have to find a way of getting people back into grounds. We may lose some clubs next season if we don’t get fans back in – but I just don’t think they are going to be allowed to compete.
“It is wrong to focus on Bill because he is not the government. The government do what they want and at the moment they don’t appear to know their arse from their elbow.
“If the infection rate is going up but the death rate stays the same then the NHS is not under severe pressure. We can’t keep running away from this virus because it is not going away anytime soon. The common cold keeps coming back and 30,000 people die of obesity-related illness every year yet we still sell fast food – why don’t we do anything about that?”
One thing Haskell does feel he knows the answer to is what needs to happen at the top end of the game. “The Premiership has got to be treated as a different entity to everything else,” he says. “We should ring-fence that and re-align things to make a global season.”
The revival of Wasps has helped Haskell to forget about the perilous financial state the sport finds itself in, heralding the work of Lee Blackett and the club’s academy for sparking a play-off push.
“Lee has won the boys over, they are playing with a lot of confidence and seem to all be pulling in the same direction,” Haskell said. “It is a team full of young players keen to get out there and play.
“Wasps had a brilliant academy system going back to my own early days there – Tom Rees, Danny Cipriani, Dom Waldouck all came through. But we went away from that for a while and I don’t think there was the right academy people in charge. Now it has got back to a point where the academy is integrated with plans for the first team.
“This (Alfie) Barbeary lad, we had heard about him as a prodigy even when I was there. He looks incredible all around the park and the set piece looks like his bread and butter whether it be at hooker or in the back row.
“He is just one of a number of players coming through and it has been a long time coming because the most notable person to came through the academy prior to these guys was probably Christian Wade.”
Haskell adds: “Academies are so important – you see it with any quality team. Just look back at Michael Cheika and what he did at Leinster. With all the guys that came through the development process there, they were able to build a dynasty.
“You can’t just go and spend big money and expect players to buy into the club. You need to develop people from within and it looks like Wasps are back on track.
“The form of some of their England players together with those around the Premiership should create a real problem for Eddie Jones when it comes to selection.
“I don’t think there will ever be a settled England squad, I don’t think Eddie wants that. Constantly bringing in new competition and keeping them on a cycle of form, you will see a lot of players involved all the way up to the World Cup when Eddie will then lock down on the guys he trusts most.
“I am really excited by the back row. Jack Willis is on fire at the moment for Wasps with double the number of turnovers than anyone else in the league. Sam Simmonds down at Exeter has done a great job and deserves his nomination for European Player of the Year.
“Being settled in comfort breeds failure and that’s not what Eddie wants.”
No.1 Sunday Times best-seller What a Flanker by James Haskell (HarperNonFiction, £20) is available to buy now in hardback or as an audiobook.