As the coronavirus pandemic continues to play havoc with sport around the globe, the issue of player welfare has never been more pertinent.

The ongoing impact of Covid-19 means players are taking part in more matches in a condensed schedule as league administrators rush to complete disrupted schedules. 

For a sport like rugby where player welfare is constantly under the spotlight, the new normal is putting more strain on top-level athletes than ever before.

One man who knows the cost of 17 years at the top level is former England flanker, James Haskell.

In the wake of the release of his new autobiography, What A Flanker, Haskell sat down with to discuss the rigours of professional rugby, the hot topic of player welfare and his own blueprint for the future of the sport.

“I was there when Matt Hampson broke his neck and it was a big wake-up call on the finite nature of your career.”
- James Haskell

Haskell, 35, was forced to retire from professional rugby in May last year after a series of toe and ankle injuries ended his prospects of representing England at the 2019 World Cup.

Almost 18 months on from calling time on a stellar 17-year career that included 77 England caps, a Lions tour, multiple titles with Wasps along with stints in France, New Zealand and Japan, Haskell reveals he was hatching retirement plans from a young age.

"I’ve always been preparing for my retirement," he said.

"I was there when Matt Hampson broke his neck and it was a big wake-up call on the finite nature of your career."

At the age of 21, Hampson was left paralysed from the neck down when a scrum collapsed in a training session with the England Under-21 squad.  

He spent the next 17 months in hospital and now requires a ventilator to breath.

The shock of that incident forced Haskell to plan for life after rugby.

James Haskell is pursuing a career in MMA - as well a number of other pursuits

"I was still scared to retire, just like everyone is," said Haskell.

"I sat down with my wife and talked about retirement… emotionally, how to avoid mental health issues, how to replace the things that you enjoy and work out what you want to do in the future.

"With Covid-19 and the pay cuts, I think a lot of young players are starting to realise ‘perhaps I need to develop myself in other areas away from rugby’".

Haskell has been immersing himself in other areas since retirement. From the popular podcast 'The Good, the Bad and the Rugby' with England World Cup winner Mike Tindall, to DJing, he's been careful to fill the void left by hanging up his boots.

But despite years of careful planning, Haskell admits managing the physical toll of 17 years at the top level is an ongoing challenge.

"I wish some of the older players had said ‘you’re going to be pretty buckled by the time you’ve finished… take part of your salary and put it into a medical pot so you’ve got a big bank of money for medical bills’.

"Insurance companies won’t touch us. In the last month alone I’ve spent about £3,000 on injections, MRI scans, consultants.

"It’s not ideal but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s given me the lifestyle I have today."

In between the tales of touring, drinking, training, eating and the sometimes unconscionable antics of the modern-day rugby player, Haskell's book paints a sombre picture of the phyiscal price he and many others pay for a career at the top level.

In his book he writes: "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 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."

Always outspoken and never shy, Haskell has his own blueprint for reducing rugby's conveyer belt of broken bodies.

As one season comes to a close the 2020/21 campaign is just a matter of weeks away, with Rugby Players' Association chief Damian Hopley warning the schedule for the next 12 months is "the most arduous ever undertaken".

"There’s so much going on in rugby at the moment that I would look into," said Haskell.

"But the main issue with player welfare is getting everything centralised and have all the clubs agree to it.

"What’s interesting is that everyone said playing two games a week was insanity because it was putting player welfare to one side in favour of finishing the season.

"But speaking to the players they’ve actually enjoyed it because they don’t have to train as much anymore and they don’t have any more pointless meetings.

"They turn up at 9am and they’re out the door at 1pm like footballers are. There’s no more of this turn up at 7am and leave at 5pm when it’s dark. No more having to fill each other in training because you didn’t win at the weekend.

"If they can reduce training load, if they can use the data that they gather to formulate better plans and ultimately reduce the amount of contact the lads have to do then that would be a start.

"The NFL have done it and they’re a billion-dollar industry so perhaps we could take a leaf out of their book."

What a Flanker by James Haskell (HarperNonFiction) is available in all good bookstores.