- James Haskell on starting at No.6 and the balance of the back row
- “Put on your head guard and gum shield and get stuck in” – Haskell
James Haskell starts at blindside flanker against Ireland on Sunday and while openside is his favoured position in the back row, the 27-year-old is content to do what’s best for the team and feels there has been a convergence of roles in recent years.
The London Wasps man has been playing the majority of his club rugby at No.7 but with England captain Chris Robshaw continuing to enhance his reputation there, Haskell knows he must adapt to realise his international ambitions.
Notable for his impact off the bench in the Scotland victory in making 10 tackles, hitting 16 rucks and making six carries in 35 minutes, Haskell says playing in the back row is about combinations and sharing the workload as opposed to being concerned with which number is on your back.
After Ben Morgan suffered an ankle injury Tom Wood switches from blindside to No.8 to accommodate Haskell and he said: “I’ll play anywhere for the team, I really don’t mind, it’s where the coaches want me to play. It’s about the other players in the back row and getting that balance right.
“The days of the out-and-out seven who is just a breakdown specialist have gone, it’s almost like you need that South African model of six or seven years ago when they’re all big men, all good tacklers, all good over the ball and all strong ball carriers.
“Then if you’ve got someone who is fantastic in the lineout you need guys who are going to be able to ball-carry. It’s about getting that mixture right – if you look at Richie McCaw, one of the best No.7’s in the world, he ball-carries as much as he turns the ball over.”
Photo: Getty Images
Haskell impressed on his last international start, making 28 tackles as England restored some pride with the 14-14 Third Test draw with South Africa in Port Elizabeth.
That credible result was founded in defensive intensity as opposed to flowing rugby and Haskell feels “getting stuck in” is the minimum requirement at the Aviva Stadium: “Ireland are very good around the breakdown so as a back row player it’s one of those game where you’ve got to put on your head guard, get your gum shield in and get stuck in – that’s where the game will start and finish.
“Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are outstanding players and it’s always good to pit yourself against the best and see where you come up. And if they go well Ireland have got the X-factor players in Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Sexton to hurt you.
“Against Ireland you have to get the set-piece right, you have to get the breakdown right and you have to get the ball to the backs to attack. If one of those areas goes missing it doesn’t matter how potent the backline is, if they’re not getting good ball in space it becomes difficult.”
Ireland are famed for the “choke tackle” which as Brad Barritt and Alex Goode explained on this week’s O2 Inside Line, aims to keep the ball carrier in the air to create a maul and turnover possession.
Haskell admits England must be wary of the tactic but says it can be overcome with hard ball carrying and ensuring the man in possession is not isolated.
“It’s one of Ireland’s strong tactics, I think the game they used it best was against Australia in the world cup. They’re big men, strong men and if you run sloppily against them they’ll aim to hold you up, cause a maul and then all the laws go out of the way.
“As a team if you run well enough and have guys around you hopefully you can deal with it. It’s a difficult challenge and what Ireland offer is probably the most physical one we’ve had for a while.”
Haskell made himself unavailable for England for the 2012 RBS 6 Nations with stints abroad for Ricoh Black Rams and Otago Highlanders after leaving Stade Francais. But his attitude every time he has pulled on the white shirt of England since, starting with the midweek team in South Africa, coupled with the outstanding contributions outlined above have made the England coaches sit up and take notice.
Haskell, who was initially a Saxon after the South Africa tour before graduating to the Senior EPS, summed up his unstinting outlook on his international career.
He added:“The environment Stuart has created here is very competitive and everyone wants to be a part of it. I’m just very excited to be involved, you never quite know if you’re going to get the call up.
“I was excited about being involved with the Saxons because there is so much talent around. It’s a great honour to be involved full stop. Whatever they throw at me and whether they want me or not, I’m just always going to keep fighting until someone taps me on the shoulder and says ‘look, listen, you’ve got to stop now because you’ve got no chance.’ Then I’ll go and do something else.”