- James Haskell spend two years with Stade Francais
- "You never know what team you’re going to get on the day" says Wasps captain
James Haskell believes mercurial France will provide a stern examination of England’s title credentials on Saturday when they bring their potentially world-class skills to Twickenham.
The England back row spent two seasons with Stade Francais in Paris from 2009 to 2011 and observed a “unique rugby culture” which enthralled and baffled in equal measures.
Discussion of French teams’ emotional ups and downs may feel clichéd, but Haskell explained that his view is based on experience.
“On their day I’m a firm believer that the French can beat anyone in the world,” said the 29 year-old Wasps captain.
“Naturally they’re fantastic rugby players but there’s a huge mental and emotional side of the game which means you never know what team you’re going to get on the day.
At Stade Francais, sometimes we had training sessions and we’d have 20 or so dropped balls, which at club level is pretty unheard of. But then they would go out and absolutely destroy the opposition at the weekend.
“Similarly you’d have training that would be flawless and then it would fall apart during an away game. There is no rhyme or reason why, it depends emotionally whether everyone is together, what state the club is in, what state the camp is in.”
Unpredictability naturally makes a team difficult to plan for, a challenge in the ultra-analysed, stats-focussed world of international sport. But for Haskell there is a simple way round the problem; prepare for France to be at their very best and then anything below that level is a bonus.
For Haskell, France’s Championship as a “mixed bag” so far – they have beaten Scotland and Italy but lost to Wales and Ireland – but he added that form means little once La Marseillaise has rung out at Twickenham.
“You just always have to assume they are fantastic rugby players, that they have that X-factor ability and plan accordingly. You should never plan for a weak French side to turn up.
“They are very physical blokes, very big men, and given they’ve had a disappointing Six Nations there’s nothing they’d love more than to come to Twickenham beat the old Roast Beef.
“They’re a very proud nation and a very good rugby nation, everyone has seen their dominance of the European Cup over the last few years and how big their club game is.”
Stuart Lancaster’s side is in a three-way battle for the 2015 RBS 6 Nations Championship, locked on six points with Ireland and Wales but with a points difference of plus 37 giving them the edge over Ireland (plus 33) and Wales (plus 12).
England will know exactly what is required of them in the final round of fixtures too, taking on Philippe Sant-Andre’s outfit at 5pm. Wales take on Italy in Rome at 12.30pm GMT, with Scotland versus Ireland in Edinburgh at 2.30pm.
Haskell won a bittersweet RBS 6 Nations title in 2011, lifting the trophy in Dublin after a humbling from Ireland torpedoed their Grand Slam hopes.
And the 57-cap man explained why winning the trophy in front of a boisterous Twickenham crowd would be radically different.
“In 2011 it we had a pretty comprehensive beating by Ireland. We’d thrown away a Grand Slam that we genuinely thought we were going to win and it was like a runners-up, commiserations, taking part medal, and I’m not a big believer in taking part medals.
“To go to Twickenham and get a result that brings the championship will be hugely special because we will have earned it.
“Silverware is few and far between and any chance to get your hands on it, especially when you’re representing your country in that white shirt, is so difficult to win. The dream would’ve been the Grand Slam but to take a Championship and get a marker for all the hard work we’ve put in would be unbelievable.”