Haskell has spent the last six months with the Otago Highlanders in New Zealand, following stints in Japan with the Ricoh Black Rams and two years in France for Stade Francais. The 27-year-old will return to London Wasps, for whom he played for seven years, at the end of the SuperRugby season.
Haskell earned 42 test caps between 2007 and last year’s World Cup and is one of the few “old guard” that new England coach Stuart Lancaster has retained after taking over the reins for the Six Nations at the start of 2012.
“I’ve always said that my reason for playing rugby is to play for my country and this is a very exciting new set-up. I was told Stuart wanted to rebuild the passion and mentality of the team, and I want to be a part of that, it’s very exciting,” Haskell says in Johannesburg during England’s build-up for the second test against South Africa.
“Stuart has made it like the All Blacks – the shirt is not yours, you have to fight for it and I’m happy to fit in with that. I may have 42 caps, but I’m back right at the bottom of the ladder and in this team, experience doesn’t count for much,” Haskell says without a hint of bitterness.
While the well-travelled Haskell is clearly built for physical confrontation at 114kg and 1.94 metres tall, he believes he has become a better player now for more cerebral reasons.
“The difference is in small percentages and in things that aren’t so tangible. I hope I’m more consistent and my game-understanding is better.
“They have a very attacking mentality in New Zealand, they get a lot of quick ball and it’s all about one-on-one battles and pace and speed. If they can beat their opposite number, then it’s a try.”
Haskell suggests there is an air of predictability about English rugby and that of their current opponents, South Africa.
“We have the talent and passion, but it’s those little nuances and mental stuff that we need. Like learning from other countries what they do well and speaking to other coaches.
“We can maybe not be so robotic. I’ve learnt from Adam Thomson and Andrew Hore at the Highlanders that, bar knowing what foot they kick off and their basic pattern, they don’t know anything about the opposition. They just worry about their game plan. You can become caught up in talking about your opposition too much,” Haskell says.
While Lancaster is not expected to tamper with the current test loose trio led by captain Chris Robshaw, Haskell will be out to impress on Wednesday against the Southern Barbarians in Kimberley.
“There’s a lot of competition in the back row but there’s no rush. I’ll just play on Wednesday and do my best to live up to Stuart’s expectations,” the former U21 star says.
Although he is playing in the number six jersey on Wednesday, Haskell says the proof of his ability will be in far more than just stealing the ball at the breakdowns.
“I played eighthman in Japan and a bit at 6 for the Highlanders, but at 7 for the rest and that’s my favourite position. I love the battles and the speed of the game, but the England captain is currently number seven!
“But the days of a flank just trying to get over the ball are probably gone. You need to be a ball-carrier and disruptive on to the ball. Just look at Richie McCaw, he carries the ball well and reads the breakdown brilliantly.”
While New Zealand’s brand of rugby has clearly stolen Haskell’s heart, he also has admiration for the steel of the Springboks.
“South African rugby, especially the Bulls and Stormers, is more about physical attrition. You know what’s coming, there’s a certain predictability, but you have to be on top of your game to stop it! If you don’t match their intensity then they’ll boss the gain-line and then play from there,” Haskell says, before warning that a Springbok side that thinks a little more out of the box would be impossible to contain.
“If the Boks learn things like tip-ons (offloads), then they’ll blow everyone away.”
While Haskell says he is looking forward to playing his rugby in England once again, he has clearly learnt much in foreign climes.
“I’ve been away for three years which means I’ve been around a bit. It’s helped me off the field as well, but it’s been invaluable playing outside of Europe, especially in SuperRugby,” Haskell says.