“How’s your face?”
“Woah! Wait up, I’m not recording yet!”
Forty-eight hours earlier, the face in question had been screaming in pure ecstasy as the England rugby team celebrated a famous win in the Six Nations Championship.
It had been broken two minutes into the deciding fixture in Paris by a flailing French arm. But despite his nose “hanging off” and blood pouring from cuts around his eyes, James Haskell stood triumphant, medal around his neck; just reward for a brilliant campaign that ended with England achieving their first Grand Slam since 2003.
Two days on, Haskell is relaxing in Dubai with his girlfriend Chloe Madeley – fitness guru and daughter of UK television legends Richard & Judy. Once we’ve established his face might need a bit longer to recover, I ask if the reality of the Grand Slam has sunk in yet.
“I’m very lucky as Chloe is with me and she’s super supportive, so she keeps reminding me what I’ve achieved. I’m not very good at celebrating my successes. I focus on the negatives and trying to improve. But I’ve taken a bit of time to reflect and it is an unbelievable achievement.”
I suggest the evidence of the cameras disagrees with him, as they showed a man more than adept at celebrating. His screams of joy and teeth bared in delight at the end of the game were the iconic image of the tournament. What was in his mind?
“Relief, first and foremost. Excitement. Only 30-odd teams have ever done this thing in the history of rugby, so it’s huge for us. Also, for me, it was angry celebrating because of all the people who have ripped me off. I’m a bit like Marmite, people either love me or hate me and there’s nothing better for me than to shut these people up. The fact I had the disappointment of the World Cup too, that made it even better.”
It was a moment Haskell very nearly didn’t get to experience. The Thursday before the match, he went for a run at the training ground and his back seized up down one side. The England medical staff and renowned physio Kevin Lidlow, who has worked with numerous top international sports stars for many years, put Haskell through his paces but it wasn’t until match day that he knew for sure he was fully match fit.
He was filling the open side position that wasn’t his most familiar role, but a challenge that new coach Eddie Jones felt he could deliver in.
“People complained during the World Cup that we didn’t have a ‘Genuine Seven’ and I often wonder that they mean by that as the days of a guy going over the ball and hitting people are over. Eddie asked me to play the role and I obviously said ‘Yep whatever you need, boss’ because I’m just delighted to be involved with the team. For me, it’s a role where I spend most of the game trying to keep the likes of Sam Warburton off the ball. In our team, it’s also a carrying option and competing at the breakdown.”
The arrival of Eddie Jones brought immediate results after England’s disappointing World Cup campaign when they became the only host nation ever to fail to qualify from the group stages. Haskell – and England – were at their lowest ebb. Enter the Australian.
“Eddie understands what players need as individuals and what we need as a team. He sets a tone and he’s got very good coaching staff around him. He creates an atmosphere where he works extremely hard and asks the players to work extremely hard on the training field.”
“And then he lets you let your hair down. He lets you be adults and he talks to the players as if they’re men and not schoolboys. He’s really good at that side of things.”
Haskell, like many of the senior England players, managed to produce some of his best ever rugby under Jones, despite being in that slightly unfamiliar role. “The thing about modern rugby is that everyone needs the capability to compete. That suits me. I’ve always tried to push myself work ethic wise and it’s paid off.”
Fitness and work ethic have made James Haskell what he is today. Physically imposing, intimidating even, and relentless. I put it to him that he might have preferred playing international rugby in days gone by when the players would sink pints and eat pies rather than hitting the gym and watching their diet. Not so much, it seems.
“No. I’m very privileged to be in the position where I’m paid to be in good shape. Eddie has made it very clear that he wants a team that are fit and able to compete. We all want to play a type of rugby that we are proud of and that entertains. That relies heavily on fitness. I’ve come from a background at Wasps where we pride ourselves on our work ethic. I’ve always enjoyed being in shape.”
And now James Haskell is sharing his successful approach to health and fitness to a wider audience. His 12-week “Lean Gains Bodybuilding Programme” is one of the UK’s most popular fitness regimes and delivers outstanding results. (To see the programme in action, you can follow one of our “30 expatriates you should know” Joseph Ryan’s blog at www.mens-health.com.my). Haskell’s advice is to start small. “Do ten minutes and build up. Make it achievable.”
“If you want to get fit, don’t just put on a pair of running shoes and go running. No one’s ever looked at a marathon runner and thought ‘I want their body’. Get a plan, stick to it and give it time to work. If you want any kind of shape, you have to lift weights. And you can’t out-train a bad diet. I know it’s a cliché but it’s true.”
But even international sportsmen with acclaimed fitness programmes need some downtime and the occasional treat. His latest? “Today I pretty much smashed a Pap John’s double pizza and ate two helpings of Jalapeno Poppers. Which I think is quite impressive.”
Time is running out on our chat and so I finish up by asking Haskell about his experience of life as an expatriate. How was living and playing rugby in Japan?
“Japan was unbelievable. All the Asian cultures are amazing. Very rich in its heritage and traditions. I found the people a little bit oppressed in terms of their work life, which often made decision-making difficult because no one wants to be seen to disagree, but actually you find out after a two-hour meeting that you leave and think you were on fire, but really you’ve offended everyone. But I found the people amazingly polite and I think living and working in Asia is an amazing, life-changing thing that I’d recommend to anyone. I definitely want to go back to Japan.”
He also experienced the expatriate lifestyle in France, where he played for Stade Francais from 2009 to 2011. His outstanding form for the French side was enough to get back into the England starting side and he hasn’t looked back since. During his time in Paris, he also found himself an unwitting hero-for-a-day.
“So I was on the Metro and this drunk guy got on and he was getting in everyone’s faces and grabbing all these women inappropriately. I was minding my own business then he took off my earphones and put them on and I tried to be polite but gave him a look and he gave me them back. So then he staggers off and is leering over these women and he touched this woman inappropriately and was causing an absolute nuisance. He leaned forward and grabbed this woman in the chest area and so I grabbed him old school by the back of the trousers and the collar and marched him through the train, shouting for someone to open the door and this old bloke opened it and I literally launched him out of the train sideways, booted his bag out with him and got a round of applause.”
Not, of course, that he would have enjoyed celebrating. I have one final question. Given his success in the personal fitness field and with his England career now nearly 70 caps long, might the thought of hanging up his boots be crossing his mind...?
“Not on the cards any time soon!” “Good to hear! Long may you roll! Thank you James and once again: huge congratulations!”
“Thanks mate, all the best!”