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Top 14
Haskell unfazed by changing landscape
Huw Baines
September 10, 2009

It's been a turbulent week at Stade Francais. The colourful Parisian giants slipped in to the Top 14's relegation zone for the first time in their history after defeat to Biarritz last weekend and days later the coaching team of Ewen McKenzie and Christophe Dominci was shown the door.

Across the Channel in Hyde Park, Stade flanker James Haskell was coaching a team of amateur players to compete at his brainchild, Trafigura RCUK Charity 7s, unaware of the upheaval at his new club. After making the brave move to leave Wasps last season to join England's growing foreign legion, Haskell has endured a tough introduction to French rugby.

McKenzie was a vocal supporter of Haskell and his England colleague Tom Palmer's international ambitions but now the new men in charge are Jacques Delmas and assistant Didier Faugeron, so it's back to the drawing board for the 19-cap blindside.

"It's been a weird week," he told ESPNScrum. "I was over in England on Tuesday and I came back and everyone had been sacked and stuff had changed.

"I had a lot of time for Ewen. He was a good coach, as was Dominici. It's difficult; it's thrown things up in the air. Again, rugby is about performance and now I've got to impress this new coach. He's already had an impact, he doesn't take any slackness. He's on the case and very, very intense.

"I'm looking forward to working with him. He doesn't speak very much English at all so I'm constantly trying to improve my French."

The doom-mongers have predicted a season-long slog for Stade, who have lifted the Bouclier de Brennus three times since 2000, but Haskell sees a different picture. Adapting to the laissez faire French style has been a challenge yet the talent at the club is a constant reminder of their potential.

Sergio Parisse, Lionel Beauxis, Julien Dupuy, Mark Gasnier and the Bergamasco brothers all ply their trade in electric pink, making their current plight all the more perplexing.

"I got over there, not pretending for one minute that my life was difficult or tough, I felt refreshed, a bit like a new man. It's frustrating that we haven't won as many as we should do," said Haskell. "I've never been involved with a team where you can give away three tries to individual errors and three minutes later have scored them all back and only lose by four points or whatever. That's a little bit galling because the talent around me is unbelievable.

"Defence was what let us down. You can't keep chasing. It's the bounce of the ball, someone missing a high ball or a kick charged down. It's not like we can't compete it's just tweaking those little bits and looking after the ball and being hard-nosed. With this new coach and with the way the French players are, we'll be up there competing."

The rising panic in England as the 'player-drain' hit home last season was no better exemplified than by Haskell, Palmer and Riki Flutey all leaving Wasps in one fell swoop. Brive acquisition Flutey, after winning a Test cap for the British & Irish Lions over the summer, is the only one of the trio to have retained his England Elite Player Squad place.

Haskell was present and correct at Martin Johnson's first training session of the season however, hinting at some extra options come the November Tests. Haskell believes that his form, rather than where he's playing, will be the deciding factor for his international hopes.

"My ambitions burn as brightly as they ever did," said Haskell. "I want to be involved. I think I've been playing well in France. If you're playing well and they want to pick you, they'll pick you. You've got to fit in to their gameplan but I'm worrying about Stade and if I get invited I'll look forward to it.

"In the back row he's spoiled for choice and having me in France meant that he can have some more options to call upon. I 100% believe that it's always disappointing not to be included, for anyone who doesn't know the logistics it looks like I've been dropped. That can get to you. If I keep working hard then I'll hopefully be involved."

Haskell's French sojourn may be in its infancy, but whispers have already emerged that a return to the Premiership may happen sooner rather than later. He freely admits that the long term plan could be to return to England, perhaps in black and gold, but for now he's happy to be running out at the Stade Jean Bouin.

"I have ambition to play back in England," he said. "Most people leave to finish their careers in France. My long term plan is to play for Stade, maybe to come back to England in my prime and then to finish off in France again. Like Wasps, Stade is not necessarily a club you leave. I've got no wishes at the moment to come back, I just want to get on with this challenge.

"I'm still a Wasps fan at heart. I was really pleased to see that they won their first game. It was my family for five years. They would be my choice if I come back, but I've got three or four years that I want to stay at Stade."

Three or four years to get used to the garish shirts? "I'm all over that, it was a deal-breaker," he said. "The pinker and louder the better for me."

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