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Haskell understands Kiwi passion

Just one season at the Highlanders was enough for James Haskell to debunk the All Blacks myth.

England's blindside flanker for Saturday's first Test against New Zealand played 12 matches for the Super Rugby franchise during a nomadic spell that also included stints in Japan and France.

The experience illustrated why the All Blacks are the sport's dominant force with Haskell realising their success is grounded in reverence for the game rather than some intangible quality beyond the reach of their rivals.

"Playing in New Zealand was an eye-opener, but it was also reassuring that there wasn't some special secret they had," the Wasps back row said.

"They'll all have you believe that there is something inaccessible they are doing that we can't.

"Armchair pundits would have you believe they're doing something revolutionary.

"They're not, but what they do have is a real passion for the game. It was an eye-opener.

"They're just very good at the basics, love to play with the ball and have a raw passion for the game. Everyone wants to be a rugby player.

"They're world champions and they're obviously very good at what they do."

"You have to respect the All Blacks but you can't be beaten before you get on to the field. Certainly I learned that they are mortal."

Haskell, who will be winning his 51st cap at Eden Park when the three-Test series opens on Saturday, left Dunedin in 2012 having earnt the respect of team-mates and opponents.

But even the ultra-confident and self-anointed 'Archbishop of Banterbury' admits to being struck by self-doubt upon his arrival.

"They don't see a great deal of our rugby down here, aside from a few Heineken Cup highlights, whereas we are fed on reels of their games depicting unbelievable tries," he said.

"When I first came down here I did not know what to expect. Was I going to be out of my depth? Are these guys going to be unbelievable?

"What I discovered in terms of the culture over here is that rugby is their passion. Nobody says I want to play soccer, they all want to be rugby players.

"Their club rugby is hugely important to them. If they are not in the Super 15 then it's back to their clubs and even playing touch rugby.

"We tend to focus on size and power these days but here it's about getting hands on the ball, everything an orientation around the ball and skills.

"Around the country I found that their game has not been ruined by commercialisation but that guys just wanted to play rugby.

"That reminded me of the days before we started playing 40 games a season.

"I really enjoyed it here, but what I did find out is that if you pressurise them, they make mistakes."

Haskell was among the few to survive England's post-2011 World Cup cull as incoming head coach Stuart Lancaster began the task of repairing the nation's reputation on and off the pitch.

The 29-year-old insists the cultures of the 2011 and 2014 squads are light years apart, even describing Lancaster's England as a "drug".

"It's incomparable in terms of where we're at. It's very competitive, open and extremely professional.

"Sometimes you know coaches are putting on an act because they have to set a particular mood or tone," Haskell said.

"But every time Lancaster speaks he genuinely believes what he says and players buy into that. It's a very positive and professional environment.

"When I hear what Stuart has to say about England, and be with the players around you, it's like a drug that you want more and more of."

"In the short time I have been back I've found that what Stuart has created with England is very special. It's a good feeling to be back in the mix."


From Belfast Telegraph