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James Haskell says back-row balance outweighs importance of shirt numbers

Published 22/01/2016

Shirt numbers matter little for Wasps' James Haskell, who could be chosen as England's openside flanker for the Six Nations
Shirt numbers matter little for Wasps' James Haskell, who could be chosen as England's openside flanker for the Six Nations

James Haskell would happily be Eddie Jones' choice at openside flanker but is adamant shirt numbers do not matter.

Debate has raged over England's number seven shirt, with Chris Robshaw, captain during the team's woeful World Cup, set to be switched to the blindside for the RBS 6 Nations after failing to convince Jones of his capabilities on the openside flank.

The Australian has mentioned Wasps captain Haskell as a possible starter at seven in the Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland on February 6.

Haskell, whose main focus is Saturday's Champions Cup contest with Leinster, has not spoken to Jones about his anticipated role.

But the 30-year-old thinks shirt numbers are largely irrelevant, with back-row balance imperative.

Haskell said: "People have got so obsessed about seven, six-and-a-half. It's bulls***. It doesn't matter.

"The most important part of a back row is the balance and people have got to stop worrying about what numbers you've got on a shirt.

"You've got to each be exponents of all areas and this obsession with it has got to stop. It's not realistic.

"People haven't seen that the modern game has completely changed from what's in the past. A seven now has a different role."

Haskell conceded England could have been better at the breakdown during the World Cup, where group-phase defeats to Wales and Australia saw the hosts' tournament come to a premature end.

Sam Warburton of Wales and David Pocock of Australia are masters at the breakdown, while there was much conjecture about the exclusion of Steffon Armitage from England duty.

Armitage plays his club rugby for Toulon and England only select overseas players in "exceptional circumstances".

Pocock and New Zealand's World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw, who is now retired, had "free rein", Haskell says, to work on the breakdown.

Haskell added: "I have never - and neither has any England player - been given the free remit to run around at the back of the defensive line and come in and do that.

"(And) it doesn't necessarily suit the team unless you have an unbelievable exponent, like someone like Pocock.

"Wherever I've played, whether that be seven or anywhere else, you only affect the breakdowns that are in front of you, you don't go looking for them. It's detrimental to the side.

"George (Smith) puts his tackles in, but he will hover around, let someone else do the work and then get on the ball.

"That's not my game. My game is being a destructive tackler, that's what brings the best out of me. You've got to find a balance."

Haskell has played the majority of his rugby at openside in recent years, until "ultimate seven" Smith arrived at Wasps last summer.

The 62-times-capped England back-row has asked former Australia flanker Smith for additional tuition.

"He's naturally quite a quiet guy but I try my best to get all the secrets out of him and he has been very willing to help," Haskell added.

Smith will help out his former coach Jones and England, with the blessing of Wasps, on an informal basis, beginning next Wednesday.

"He's doing it out of friendship," Jones said.

"He's one of the best defence breakdown forwards in the world. He will help our aspiring number sevens."

Haskell added: "Anyone with a world-class pedigree like George has would be a great asset.

"He's played at more clubs than Madonna. He'll only add to any environment."

Wasps' last-gasp loss at Toulon last Sunday has taken their qualification for the last eight of the Champions Cup to the final round of fixtures, when Leinster visit the Ricoh Arena.

The hosts can advance as Pool Five winners, or as one of three best runners-up.

"I'm sure people never gave us a chance of coming out of the Pool of Death but to get into the last eight would mean the world to the club," Haskell said.

"We have the ability to do it - I back us to beat anyone - but if we weren't to make it through it would probably be because we have been our own worst enemy at times."

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