As the Annabel Newton saga drags on both here and back in New Zealand, the most alarming detail to emerge from the scandal was that the allegations against James Haskell cost him a move to join Super Rugby champions the Queensland Reds next season.
Correctly, the former Wasps flanker is livid. Not because of the alluring potential salary of £80,000, but because Haskell has the had the opportunity taken away from him to go and play with some of the best players in the tournament, and perhaps even more crucially, to work under one of the top coaches around at the moment in Ewen McKenzie. “Link”, as he is popularly known around the world, joined the Reds in 2009 and after years of mediocrity lead them to the edge of the playoffs in 2010, finishing 5th, before following that up this season with championship success as they defeated the Crusaders in the final.
More importantly, he did it on a shoestring. Crowds in Brisbane were minimal at the start of the season, along with investment. McKenzie’s recruitment process was not based on recruiting marquee names from across Australia and beyond, but more scouring the players with the right attitude. Radike Samo joined the Reds after years in rugby wilderness, and became the starting number 8 for the Wallabies through the Tri-Nations and Rugby World Cup. Beau Robinson had spent season after season behind Phil Waugh at the Waratahs, and was playing club rugby and working part-time in a bar before McKenzie turned him into a Super Rugby champion.
This recruitment process was backed by a huge amount of faith in the Queensland Academy. In the final, 12 out of the 15 starting players came through the youth setup, whilst of that group James Horwill and Will Genia have gone on to captain their country. Over two seasons, they have become a title-winning juggernaut driven by youth and raw talent. Those two qualities are assets Haskell still has on his side at 26, but linking up with the Reds could have developed him dramatically as a player. Already a Heineken Cup winner with Wasps back in 2007, a Super Rugby title with the Reds this season would have taken him to levels of unprecedented success.
Instead, Haskell has joined the Otago Highlanders, back in Dunedin where England performed so poorly during the Rugby World Cup. There is no doubt that the Highlanders have some fine talent in their ranks; Adam Thomson, Jimmy Cowan, Colin Slade and Hosea Gear are the names that leap off the squad list, but their placings in the last four years of 11th, 11th, 12th and 8th do not bode well. Haskell is set for 5 months of intense, gruelling encounters where at times he may end up very much on the wrong side of the scoresheet. Otago weather is not pretty, and whilst one could argue that some time roughing it out in tough playing conditions could be good for Brand Haskell, he has just spent two years at Stade Français frustratingly failing to create success with a glitterati of talent in the brutal Top 14.
Playing for the Reds could have been the making of him. And yet because of an incident of light-hearted banter that has been exploited by the victim and melodramatically splashed all over the press, Haskell has lost a golden opportunity. Regardless of whether he clears his name or not, the damage is done. Instead of spending a season based on the Gold Coast, Haskell will be stuck in a town where the ground used up until last year was known as “The House of Pain”.
by Ben Coles