sport

Haskell committed to England

James Haskell has said his decision to play a season of club rugby in Japan and then in New Zealand last year was a gamble.

Haskell was convinced the experience would make him a better person and a better player - but the challenge was in convincing head coach Stuart Lancaster.

There were times when Haskell "looked down the barrel of not playing for England again", fearing his face may not fit in Lancaster's new regime no matter how well he played on his return to Wasps.

Harlequins' Nick Easter, a central figure in the Martin Johnson era, had found himself in exactly that position following the 2011 Rugby World Cup disappointment.

But Haskell has battled his way back into Lancaster's plans, convincing a once-sceptical head coach of his passion and dedication for the cause.

On Sunday in Dublin, Haskell will make his first Six Nations start since England's Grand Slam dreams were wrecked by Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in 2011.

"It was (a gamble). I'm not going to sit here like the bloke from the A-Team who says: 'I love it when a plan comes together' because that's not the case at all," Haskell said.

"I had no idea what was going to happen, I had no idea that I was going to get the opportunity to come back in.

"I knew that if I went away, that I would be more enriched as a person, I'd probably grow up and come back as a better player as a product of that.

"There have always been times, with new coaches coming in, when I have looked down the barrel of not playing for England again. I never knew I was going to get an opportunity again.

"I'd seen that guys were not involved. I'd seen what they were trying to create and they were bringing in young players.

"But I knew that if I got the chance to work in this environment, that if Stuart got to know me, he could see that I was passionate about England and this team, that I will keep fighting and do everything I could do to get involved in the squad because it means that much to me."

Haskell got his chance on the summer tour of South Africa, where he was pressed into action as an emergency openside flanker for the drawn third Test.

Lancaster named Haskell in the Saxons squad at the start of the season but he has been involved in England's last three matches, including the wins against New Zealand and Scotland.

Haskell displayed those fighting qualities at Twickenham last weekend, when he made 10 tackles, hit 16 rucks and won four turnovers in just 35 action-packed minutes.

"I was very lucky to get that opportunity in South Africa. That tour was great for me to see what the coaches were doing," Haskell said.

"I'd seen Stuart but never had a relationship and it was great for him to see what I was about.

"I've had to fight my way back in but that's the same for any of those guys coming back in. There's always competition.

"Running out at Twickenham last week, even though it wasn't to start, was just as exciting as it ever was. I feel refreshed and very, very eager to stay in this environment as long as I can."

The environment Haskell discovered stood in stark contrast to the England set-up he had left after the World Cup. It had an All Blacks feel about it.

"There is a lot of respect for the shirt. Everyone realises the shirt on its own is a bit of cloth but when you fill it, you have to fill it with physicality, emotion and passion," Haskell said.

"You know that any moment it can be taken away. Your performances have to do the talking.

"When I was in New Zealand and spoke to the All Blacks guys about their environment, they said there is a very short life expectancy in the shirt.

"They blood young guys early on. When I came back here I found it was something Stuart was doing.

"Sometimes guys are fixtures in the team. Ben Foden is a great example. He has been one of England's top performers but there wasn't any space for him as guys in his position have been playing very well.

"Stuart respects that. Guys who have performed at this level do have a little credit, but it's about the guys playing best at the moment.

"That means when you do get the shirt you have renewed vigour, you want to do it justice and perform well."

Haskell will start at blindside flanker against Ireland, with Tom Wood shifting to number eight in place of the injured Ben Morgan.

Two years ago, Haskell tasted bitter defeat in Dublin as Ireland blew England's Grand Slam dreams apart.

"It was one of those games when I would describe Ireland as very oppressive," Haskell recalled.

"Ireland have so many talented players that if they get that emotional energy up they are very difficult to stop. They have X-factor players across the field.

"You have to respect Ireland for everything they are going to bring but it is about imposing ourselves."

Haskell is relishing the challenge.