Rugby Union has dominated the life of England international James Haskell. Born in Windsor, Berkshire, he has spent the majority of his 33 years between the confines of the lines on a rugby pitch. The 6ft 4in flanker and British and Irish Lion cuts an imposing figure when he takes to the field. Haskell is the third most capped England back-row forward, with 77, behind Lawrence Dallaglio (85) and Joe Worsley (78).
And it might seem a long way from his early days at Maidenhead Rugby Club but from little acorns mighty oaks grow.
Haskell said: “I was five when I first started playing rugby. Basically, my mum lied about my age and signed me up to Maidenhead Rugby Club. It was the perfect crime, she could get rid of me and my dad out of the house and have a bit of peace and quiet!”
But those days at Maidenhead stood Haskell in good stead and gave him the bedrock on which his rugby career was founded. However, it was at Wellington College, in the village of Crowthorne, that his feet were set on to the trail of rugby stardom.
Haskell said: “I never wanted to be a rugby player I just got into a situation where it kind of happened. It was probably when I went to Wellington College. I was about 15 and I trialled for England Under-16s, got all the way to the final trials and then I didn’t get in. It was probably through a lack of work, personal stuff and everything else.
“But, my old man said to me ‘listen you can see it as a disappointment or you can use the opportunity to have a go next year and come back better’. We had a friend of the family who was kind of a personal trainer and I started training with him and it was a bit like a Rocky montage. And a few years later I got into the England Under-18s and once you are in that cycle opportunities present themselves.
“It was more about doing hard work, I just hadn’t done the extra work and bits I was supposed to be doing so I just ended up committing myself and ended up falling in love with training and everything. When other people were resting I was working. I think that I always had lots of energy and I was focusing it in the right place and became a bit of a workaholic off the back of it.”
It was this single-minded dedication to training that helped Haskell up the England ladder.
He added: “You always have challenges. I have sacrificed a lot to commit to playing rugby. In terms of early injury I was OK but I think the whole process of trials and training is very hard.
“A lot of the young players, with far more talent than I had, end up falling by the wayside and it’s down to determination and you have to keep working and not giving up. And that’s the way I’ve always operated.
“Even when I was on holiday I’d be training, I wouldn’t be going out, when other guys were chasing women and having beers I wasn’t doing that. I never went to university, never travelled or anything. I was always a committed rugby player.” But was it always rugby for Haskell or did he have a fall back position if anything went wrong?
He said: “ Firstly, I either wanted to drive a JCB for a living or fancied being in the SAS. But once I got an opportunity I took it. I did apply for university but I decided to defer it for a year to give rugby an opportunity and five years later I was still doing what I am doing now.”
The road to Twickenham saw Haskell make ten appearances for England Under-21 in 2005, including five in the World Rugby World Championship in Mendoza, Argentina, and he became the first player to appear in every match for that age group team in two successive years.
James was a try-scorer when the U21 side completed the 2006 Six Nations Grand Slam with a 40-5 win over Ireland, having previously represented England U18, U19 and England Sevens.
He made his senior England debut in 2007 in the 27-18 defeat against Wales.
But what was it like pulling on an England shirt for the first time?
Haskell said: “It was incredible. It happened quite quickly. I was 21 and I was invited into the England camp, there was an injury and I was thrown in. My debut was in the Millennium Stadium and we played with the roof closed. A lot of people talk about a crowd affecting games but you just really don’t appreciate it until you’re playing in Cardiff, you’re ten metres out from the Welsh line, five points behind and the crowd is roaring – it’s mad.”
Haskell starts next season at a new club, Northampton Saints, but he started his professional career at Wasps. His rugby CV includes stints at Stade Francais, Ricoh Black Rams, Highlanders before returning to Wasps in 2013. Haskell was also called up for the British and Irish Lions for the 2017 tour of New Zealand, after an injury to Billy Vunipola, and a member of the England squad that whitewashed the Wallabies 3-0 in Australia in 2016, being named man of the series on the way.
But what have his career highlights been so far? He said: “With Wasps it’s been winning the Heineken Cup and the Premiership – which is obviously the whole experience. With England it’s been winning the Six Nations Grand Slam (2016) and getting that 3-0 whitewash in Australia. It’s all been an incredible process really.
“The Lions tour was amazing – I thought I was going to finish my career without ever doing it. Obviously, sadly, Billy V got injured and I got an opportunity to go and I absolutely loved it. It was one of the best rugby experiences I have ever had.
“I spent my life playing against these players from other teams, ending up beating the hell out of each other week in week out on the international stage and you actually get to meet them, find out what they are like, have a coffee with them.
“Lots of people change their persona when they get on a rugby field but then you suddenly meet them and find out they are the loveliest blokes on earth and I think that was the best part about it and I bonded with people for life there.”
But this summer Haskell had to be like the rest of us and watch England’s tour of South Africa at home as he wasn’t named in manager Eddie Jones squad.
He said: “It was disappointing – I was told that I was being rested but you never want to be rested, you always want to be involved in the mix. Especially when you are coming to the end of your career, you want to take every possibility you can. It was disappointing but it is what it is, you just have to roll with it. I am enjoying my off season and working hard to hit the ground running.”
But Haskell is looking forward to the beginning of next season with his new club: “I am really excited to be playing with Northampton next season. Northampton has a great heritage and have had some amazing players. I think they are a very traditional English rugby super power in some respects. I am excited to meet up with guys like Courtney Laws and Tom Wood.”
But Haskell did run into some criticism at the end of last season following a small social engagement – the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Wasps were playing in the semifinal of the Premiership against Saracens at Allianz Park.
Haskell and fiancee Chloe Madeley turned up at St George’s Chapel, in Windsor, and drew criticism from former England internationals Lawrence Dallaglio and Austin Healey stating he should have been at Allianz Park lending support to Wasps.
Haskell had been ruled out of the match with a foot injury and had the blessing of coach Dai Young to attend the wedding: “ I had permission to go from our head coach. I initially turned down the invitation but when it was apparent that I couldn’t play they let me go. The interesting thing is, not a lot of people realise, that Wasps didn’t provide any tickets for the non-23 or any transport to go to the game. Non 23 players never go to away games, and I would have been sitting in the stands, there would have been nothing I could have done there. It was a cheap easy headline for people to get press out of it. The very fact that Dai Young came out and backed me tells you everything.”
Outside of the rugby world, Haskell has become involved with F45, whose fitness studios all over the world offer a 45 minute High-Intensity, Circuit Training workout class for members.
Haskell added: “I’ve been involved with F45 for quite a while now. I trained at a place in LA, by chance I was working with someone who had a fantastic set, I loved the team atmosphere, the fact it was using your full body to help you get in shape, real simple, really welcoming and not intimidating in any way. I loved the whole atmosphere that went with it.”
With the World Cup in Japan in 2019, Haskell wants to earn a place in the England side but his main aim is to play well for his new club.
He said: “Next season, my focus is to get into the Northampton team, to be the best player I can be for them and everything off the back of that will go from there.
“With anything like the World Cup, and I know its cliched, you have to focus on what’s in front of you. You never aim to get into a World Cup but if you play well enough and stay fit then things like World Cups they come to you.”