Rugby broke my body – my fingers pop out and I can’t run ...
Rugby has got a lot of things right and also has an awful lot of problems, but the most pressing concern, for anyone who loves the game and professes to be concerned about the people who play it, is player welfare.
People don’t realise the hell rugby players put their bodies through. I had it relatively easy but I still wake up in pain every day, and can’t run anymore. I only had four operations during my career: I had a huge piece of floating bone removed from my ankle; a patellar tendon scrape on my knee; toe reconstruction surgery; and surgery to fuse a finger because it kept popping out. The finger would pop out when someone shook my hand and even when I was asleep. I knew it was time to get it fixed when I went on holiday after the tour and it kept popping out whenever I was asleep or went to switch the light off.
I was in pain for so much of my career that it became normal. Everything would be sore – my neck, my shoulders, my back, my hips, my ankles, my feet, my toes. Then I’d limp downstairs, make breakfast, limp out to the car and drive to training. I just had to get on with it.
I was never a pill-smasher, but many times I got my ankles and toes jabbed with anaesthetic or anti-inflammatories to numb them so I could play, or post-surgery to deal with pain.
Shouldering the burden: James Haskell is treated by ex-England physio Dan Lewindon and (right) at Wasps
Before one international, I was in so much pain but unwilling to tell anyone that I ended up giving myself an anti-inflammatory injection in the buttock in the changing room toilets. It was 100 per cent legal, and only a Voltarol jab, but it felt very wrong. I didn’t want to be sticking needles in my a---, and I
Shortly after signing for Stade Francais in 2009, my agent called me and said, “The owner wants you to do a photo shoot for a calendar.” My immediate thought was, “No way, it’s just going to confirm what everyone has been saying. That I’ve disappeared up my own a---.” So I told my agent to tell the owner I wasn’t interested. Ten minutes later, my agent phoned back. “Listen. The owner is not best pleased. If you don’t do it, it would not be a good start to your career at Stade.”
I discovered that the calendar – called Dieux du Stade: Gods of the Stadium – had become the bestselling calendar in Europe, featuring arty photos of sportspeople stripped and squinting into the middle distance. It was also the brainchild of Stade owner Max Guazzini, who had transformed the club from third division nonentities into Top 14 titans. So, I got on the Eurostar and was taken to a nondescript multistorey car park and told to take off all my clothes. Next, a woman opened a holdall and pulled out one of those high-pressure spray guns and filled it with gold paint. Half an hour later, I was covered from head to toe in gold. probably should not have played, but the desire to represent your club or country burns very bright. You don’t want to let someone else have that shirt. One coach whom I had worked with during some agegroup rugby with England, who went on to coach in the Premiership, had a famous saying: “What’s wrong, chief? Nothing a bit of pills and tape won’t fix.”
His solution to any problem was to get soup and pills down a stricken player’s neck and just strap up the injury. Sadly, quite a few players adopted that mantra and ended up falling to bits.
I think in the past too many coaches took advantage of good, loyal people who desperately wanted to do what was best for the team. No player wants to be seen as weak, not putting their body through the wringer when everyone else is.
I was then led onto the roof of the car park, wearing fluffy pink slippers and dressing gown, to be met by a flamboyant American photographer, who cooed: “I’m going to make you so gorgeous! I’m going to make you shine!”
I lost the gown and slippers, so I was naked. And now I noticed two women looking at me through their office window, shouting, “Petit! Petit!”, which I think means big in French.
Suddenly this photographer was up in my face again. “Listen, James, I need you to prance like a pony! Like a horse!”
“Prance?” I said. “Mate, you’re talking to the wrong man.”
“I can see you’re a bit nervous, James,” he replied. “But we’ve all got what you’ve got. If it would make you feel better, I’ll show you mine. “After all, I’ve seen yours!”
Before I could say, “No, don’t do it, you mad American b------!”, he’d unzipped his fly and flopped his old chap out. At that, I called a timeout, threw on my gown in a real huff and minced all the way back to my dressing room.
While various gofers banged on the door, imploring me to continue, I took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror. “This is not great,” I thought to myself.
But then I remembered whose brainchild this was – Max Guazzini. So I flung open the door, marched back onto that car park roof and pranced like a wild stallion. I ended up on the front page of the Dieux du Stade and did it every year for four years. And you know what? I loved every minute of it.
Naked contract: Posing in a calendar nude was part of the deal when James Haskell signed for Stade Francais