Little did James Haskell guess when he ran out to play Uruguay in Manchester on 10 October 2015 that he and England would still be unbeaten 17 Tests and 518 days later. The World Cup dead rubber was widely seen as a fixture destined to go straight to video (or Montevideo in this case), notable only as Stuart Lancaster’s last stand. No one, Haskell included, imagined it would herald such a sparkling new dawn.
No fewer than 14 of the match-day 23 who shared in that 60-3 thrashing of Uruguay – the figure would be higher if George Kruis and Chris Robshaw were fit – will also face Scotland in the Six Nations, with a chance of matching New Zealand as, statistically, the most successful team in major Test history. Haskell, about to win his 74th cap and become England’s sixth most capped forward of all time, sounds understandably grateful: “I wasn’t sure I was going to be involved again in the England set-up or part of anything. I don’t want to be dramatic but when I was injured last year there were a lot of times when I didn’t even know if I was going to get back for Wasps. I didn’t dream I was going to get back for England.”
Small wonder the ebullient flanker, who turns 32 next month, is unconcerned at being dubbed Old Man River by his back-row colleague Billy Vunipola. He has been called worse down the years but it is impossible to ignore the energy and perseverance that continues to drive him onwards like some giant Duracell Bunny. As he cheerfully puts it: “I’ve been written off more times than some of the government’s tax returns but I just keep plodding along.”
In the eventful decade since he made his Test debut in March 2007 against Wales he has also discovered fortunes can alter very quickly. The flanker has served under four different England head coaches, played club rugby in France, Japan and New Zealand and seen his beloved Wasps relocate to Coventry. The constant ups and downs, not least the persistent foot injury that ruled him out of the autumn Tests, have bred a level of bullet-proof assurance that Eddie Jones, in particular, loves having around. As Haskell reminisces about the darker days after England’s World Cup meltdown, he makes the art of resurrection sound deceptively simple: “You’ve just got to move on, you can’t just sit around. Imagine saying to [Wasps coach] Dai Young: ‘Sorry, mate, I can’t train today, I’ve got to go have a cry.’ All I knew I had to do was play well for Wasps because my desire to play for England wasn’t over.”
But why have England kicked on so relentlessly under Jones, to the point where they have almost forgotten how to lose? The secret, it seems, is hidden in the GPS data measuring every player’s work rate. Haskell has always been fit but the demanding Jones regime has forced all and sundry to raise their games. “It is full-on from 7.30am to when you finish stretching at nine o’clock at night. When you see how quickly Eddie moves players in and out of the set-up … you can’t afford to rest. You get that text, you go and see Eddie and you’re not here any more. We’re always working, there’s no let-up. I haven’t felt fresh since I was 15.”
All of which looks to leaves little time for old-school fun, although Haskell does his best. Any squad member caught on a mobile phone when he should be conversing with team-mates has to do naughty-boy press-ups – “We’re trying to re-educate people to speak again” – and Haskell is equally happy to guide younger players in other areas: “I took Billy Vunipola out in London the other day. He’s only just starting drinking coffee; I was trying to improve his palette. Most importantly he laughs at my jokes, so I take him everywhere.”