With Billy Vunipola and Chris Robshaw receiving plaudits from all quarters, it is time to give James Haskell his credit for his role at No 7?
By Alex Shaw
It’s been a productive Six Nations so far for England.
New head coach Eddie Jones has steered his side to the title with a round still to go – something which has never been done before in the six-team format – and has revitalised a group of players who looked particularly lacklustre at last year’s Rugby World Cup.
Maro Itoje, the England’s new hero, has been receiving plaudits from all quarters since making his debut, the pack has rediscovered its edge and the back three look assured, hungry and a match for any in the world on their day.
One person who has gone under the radar in England’s march to the title and a possible Grand Slam, however, is James Haskell. Following Chris Robshaw’s sensible move to the blindside, where he has excelled and enjoyed his fair share of praise, with Eddie Jones saying he has been ‘colossal’, Haskell has been charged with the unenviable job of manning England’s openside.
There’s no shying away from the fact that Haskell is a divisive player in the opinion of England fans. Never short of bravado, the back rower exudes confidence and no little swagger which some can mistake for arrogance, but it’s actually built on the solid core skills which have seen him clock up 66 test caps, second only to Dylan Hartley’s 70 in the current squad.
By his own admission, Haskell is not the ‘out-and-out No7’ that everyone seems to hanker after, but he’s a player that does the dirty work as well as any in the Northern Hemisphere, a task for which there is little acknowledgment or praise, simply because of the number of the back of his jersey.
Robshaw’s work rate has been lauded at six but it seems unfashionable for a seven, who should supposedly be sitting back, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop, get over the ball, and turn ball over. It’s a complex argument that can be swung either way depending on your available personnel, but given England’s current pool of players, it’s a role that is given far more weight than it should.
Haskell’s 48 tackles are tied for the most in the team (along with the underrated George Kruis), his short carries around the fringes have kept England consistently on the front foot and his work at the breakdown has been top-drawer. He may not have stolen ball with the snaffling skills of David Pocock or Richie McCaw, but his work clearing out the ruck area and giving Ben Youngs and Danny Care quick and clean ball to work with has been as good as anyone’s in the championship.
On a side note, that lack of turnover-creating potential in the seven shirt becomes less important when you have the likes of Maro Itoje, Dan Cole and Billy Vunipola stealing ball around you.
Sure, he’s been pinged for the odd neck roll or late tackle, but in no way has his play verged on being a discipline headache for Eddie Jones over the last seven weeks. There can be no doubt, however, that Haskell will again be pivotal as England go Grand Slam-hunting in Paris on Saturday evening.
The physical edge that Haskell brings to the seven shirt will be sorely tested and as skilled as players like Matt Kvesic and Will Fraser are, this is a game where brute strength will be paramount.
Haskell will need to clear the likes of Bernard le Roux, Damien Chouly and Yoann Maestri out of the contact area quickly. We could debate France’s failings for quite a period of time, but these are not easy men to move.
What Haskell has essentially shown over this Six Nations so far, is that he has the stereotypical skill set of a seven at attacking rucks, and that of a six when defending them. People will continue to throw the ‘six and a half’ jibes about but if he can deliver against France and help England to their first Grand Slam since 2003, he is undoubtedly the man to don the jersey in Australia this summer.
England are moving in the right direction, but they will need to improve considerably if they are to be competitive against the Wallabies when they head Down Under.
If you don’t think Haskell is the right man to be charged with shutting down David Pocock and Michael Hooper in that series, give England’s games over these last two months another watch.
Jones has been vocal about once again making England a frustrating and awkward team to play and it seems entirely fitting that a player as vexing as Haskell is rising to the fore under the Australian’s leadership. After all, rugby is not a popularity contest.