James Haskell interview: ‘It’s very scary out there in terms of cancel culture – and it is going to get worse’

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Haskell expresses particular sympathy for his former England team-mate Henry Slade, who received a savage backlash after his interview in May with Telegraph Sport, in which the outside centre disclosed he had no intention of being vaccinated against Covid-19. “I felt very sorry for him, with all the vitriol. He’s an unbelievable lad and what he decides to do is up to him.” As such, he prescribes three golden rules for any sports figure with a social media account to observe. “Don’t talk about religion, don’t talk about politics, and don’t, whatever you do, talk about whether or not you’ve received the Covid vaccine, because those three things will get you cancelled.”

In his latest book, Ruck Me: I’ve Written Another Book which is being exclusively serialised on Telegraph Sport on Thursday and Friday, sequel to the compellingly gossipy What A Flanker, Haskell is not afraid of taking on a few of the sacred cows in contemporary sports debates. His take on depression and anxiety, for example, feels bracingly counter-cultural. “We’re defining ourselves by it,” he says. “Post-Covid, people are saying, ‘I don’t want to go back to work. I’m a bit nervous – I have social anxiety.’ No, you haven’t. Or, you hear: ‘I’m not where I want to be in my job, I haven’t got the house I want – I’ve got depression.’ No, you’re just having a very bad day. You see it all the more with Covid. Everyone’s blaming laziness, incompetence and poor service on Covid. It’s the perfect ready-made excuse. What are you going to blame in five years’ time?”

Haskell is at pains to stress that he is not trivialising genuine psychological suffering. He explains how he has seen a therapist since the age of 17 and how his wife Chloe, daughter of TV presenters Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, struggles with anxiety. “She’ll wake up in the middle of the night. She won’t be able to sleep, won’t be able to breathe, she’ll be overthinking everything, and I’ll need to hold her. That’s anxiety. Saying, ‘I don’t want to go up on stage and speak in an office’ doesn’t mean you have anxiety. The more we allow people to have excuses, the more mediocrity we’re going to allow.”

Although still only 36, Haskell is in many ways a throwback, a link to a bygone era in rugby where international players felt at liberty to speak in more than prepackaged platitudes. As his friend, the broadcaster Alex Payne, puts it in the book: “Rugby is a game built on funny stories, but that has been lost in the last 10 years or so. So when someone as big, brash and noisy as Hask walks into that world, people love it.” The raconteur elements of Ruck Me! do not disappoint: Haskell has amassed at least 30 stories of his antics on the road, encompassing everything from being asked to star in an adult film to spraying the inside of a Parisian lady’s car with salad cream after she had stolen his parking space.

Haskell freely admits that he can feed his own caricature as an “alpha-male meathead”. But glimpses of a more vulnerable side do emerge, not least when he describes giving a speech to the England dressing room about how deeply the injuries to Matt Hampson had affected him. He had been on the pitch with England’s Under-21s in 2005, when a scrummaging incident rendered Hampson tetraplegic, and used the occasion of the Eden Park Test against New Zealand in 2014 to talk about how the moment had informed his philosophy on life.

“When Stuart Lancaster asked me to speak, I reflected on what it meant to me to play for England. It was to make sure I made the most of everything I had. I got choked up talking about Matt – I was there when his whole life changed.”

Haskell could easily luxuriate only in his memories of 77 Test caps and of the lurid escapades they enabled. But he is a naturally restless soul: no sooner is this interview over than he is boarding a flight to Dubai to pursue his other passion as a DJ. He abhors the prospect of becoming a mere nostalgia act. It is why he savages the spectacle of former players, not least England’s 2003 World Cup winner Neil Back, taking the present Test crop to task.

“We roll our eyes a lot at these past players,” he says. “People hang on their every word because they did something a while ago. Neil Back will say to Maro Itoje, ‘Always remain humble.’ What are you talking about? Stay humble? F— off, you’re not involved. I don’t want to be dining out forever on the fact I played well in 2016. I’ve got more life to live now doing something else than I had playing rugby.”

A reluctance to dwell on the past explains why he feels such a kinship with Eddie Jones. The England head coach has received a fearful inquisition into his high rates of staff turnover and his almost impossibly high standards, but the image of a tyrant is not one that Haskell accepts. “I genuinely believe that under Eddie, it’s the first time England have had an aspirational environment. Success is something to be revisited every day, and that requires constant pressure. In New Zealand, everybody in the country wants to be an All Black. All the Super Rugby franchises are pulling towards that: the All Blacks come first. In England, it’s like the Wild West, with the way the clubs act. Some of the coaches here don’t understand what success is.”

He is similarly withering about the idea of Jones mistreating his players, allegedly tearing into Marland Yarde when the wing arrived for England training claiming fatigue. “What’s he doing turning up to an England camp saying he’s tired? Speak to a doctor. Don’t tell Eddie Jones you’re f—— tired. Everything’s a test with him. He came to my house in 2017 and retired me. He wanted to see whether I had what it took to get to the World Cup. Did it crush me? Yeah. Was it an emotional moment? Absolutely. But I got another couple of games out of it. He treated me for the first time in my career as an adult, as someone to be valued. All he had to do was pump up my tyres and I would do anything for him. He was just happy for me to be me.” Ultimately, that is all that Haskell, often misunderstood as nothing but a jester and provocateur, asks of anyone.

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