England travelled to New Zealand in 2011 intent on winning the Rugby World Cup – but ultimately failed miserably. Nine years on, veteran flanker James Haskell – one of three players who faced sexual harassment claims at a Dunedin hotel – has lifted the lid on the tour from hell in his new autobiography. Neil Reid reports
James Haskell has revealed he spent almost $300,000 on legal fees while successfully fighting a charge he sexually harassed a maid at England’s hotel in Dunedin during the side’s horror 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign.
In his new autobiography, What a Flanker, the veteran of 77 tests for England and a member of the British and Irish Lions who toured New Zealand in 2017, has opened up on the scandals that engulfed him and his teammates during the tour.
That includes claims members of the team were involved in dwarf-throwing at a Queenstown nightclub, tabloid stories of Mike Tindall – the husband of royal Zara Phillips – socialising with a mysterious blonde woman, and fellow star midfielder Manu Tuilagi being arrested during a post-campaign outing with teammates on Auckland Harbour.
Haskell was at the centre of a potentially even greater scandal; facing allegations he and teammate Chris Ashton had sexually harassed a house maid at the Dunedin hotel.
When a group of England players earlier stole a hotel staff member’s walkie-talkie in protest to a team management decision to confiscate a box of chocolate bars sent to forward Tom Croft, little did they know the fall-out would lead to the claims.
Players said they would return the communications device if they got the chocolate back, and also jokingly called on media officer Dave Barton to be killed.
The encounter with the maid – which was filmed by the trio of Haskell, Ashton and New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley – happened after she entered Hartley’s room.
Haskell wrote that she asked where the walkie-talkie was. Initially they told her they had no idea, but then it crackled into life from inside a wardrobe.
“That’s when I made the fateful and inappropriate mistake of saying, ‘You still haven’t given us the chocolate or killed Dave Barton. And you haven’t given us an Aussie kiss, which is a French kiss but down under’.
“The maid replied, ‘What does that mean?’.
“Chris Ashton said, ‘A BJ’, and me and Dylan told him to stop being so rude. He apologised straight way.”
Haskell said the exchange lasted a minute, adding he had no inkling it would “have so far-reaching ramifications for so many people”.
And it wasn’t until after the team’s ill-fated later trip to Queenstown that Haskell knew how serious it was to become. One of the first people he encountered in the team’s hotel in Dunedin was Barton, with Haskell writing “the fact that he was white as a sheet and sweating like a lunatic didn’t bode well”.
He was summoned to a meeting featuring Johnson, England team media manager Will Chignell and legal adviser Richard Smith QC.
“They were not party mood. Johnno got straight to the point, telling me that a hotel maid had accused me, Dylan and Chris of making lewd and inappropriate comments to her.”
The players defended themselves – giving Johnson the video – and telling their coach that the maid had later socialised with members of the England team at a local pub after a pool-play game against Argentina.
But he claimed she had “ended up getting extremely drunk and later in night fallen over and knocked herself out”.
Haskell wrote that she later told her mother in hospital that she had “gotten so drunk” as she was “traumatised” by the earlier hotel room interaction. Her mother then complained to the police liaison officer assigned to the England team.
The players were told they should never have allowed themselves to be together in a room with a woman, and were then told to apologise to the hotel staff member.
Haskell said he thought that was a “bulls*** idea”, but later agreed to tell her that they understood she had been through “a tough time” and they would also purchase $100 worth of flowers for her.
That meeting went ahead, with Haskell claiming the house maid actually apologised to the players for the scandal they had found themselves in.
“We stood there, taken aback by this whole saga. But I knew we had not heard the end of it.”
And it wasn’t. Several days before England’s final pool-play match against Scotland, Haskell was called into another meeting with team management.
There he was told the maid had “ramped up her allegations”, including that the meeting to clear the air had left her “hurt and humiliated”.
The Rugby Football Union – England rugby’s governing body – had been negotiating a financial settlement to cover legal fees as a “gesture of goodwill”.
The next day Haskell said her lawyer told the RFU that if they didn’t pay her client £30,000 ($57,930) she would sell her story to the media.
“The RFU’s handling of the situation was shambolic,” Haskell wrote. “I was furious that they’d put us in a room alone with the maid again. I was furious that they’d been negotiating a payout without telling us. I was furious when they told us we had to pay the maid £30,000.”
The woman did sell her story to England’s Sunday Mirror. In frustration to a lack of support Haskell was receiving from his bosses, he hired his own lawyer.
Haskell had to front up to then RFU professional rugby director Rob Andrew on his return to England.
“After some awkward small talk, Rob played the video of our interaction with the maid. And after we’d watched it, he said, ‘How did we get from that to this?’, before holding up a copy of the Mirror, with their sensational version of the story plastered all over the front page,” Haskell wrote
“So I replied, ‘Mismanagement, incompetence, miscommunication, weakness in the face of an opportunist, complete disregard for player welfare …’.”
Haskell and Ashton were both given suspended fines of £5000 ($9644) and warned about future conduct after being found guilty of “misconduct for allowing a woman to enter the hotel room”. Hartley was cleared of any wrongdoing.
But Haskell was left hugely out of pocket, with his legal bill almost topping $300,000.
“My old man became bitter with the lawyers, and the media printed whatever they wanted,” he wrote.
“In the end the legal fees having risen to well over 150 grand ($291,319) as the lawyers were just firing off letters, hiring barristers, paralegals, etc. I had to tell him [his father] to stop it as I was picked up the bill.”
England’s controversial off-field antics began the night they arrived in New Zealand.
Some players spent their entire tour fee that night in the Sky City Casino. Damage was done to a hotel door and one player also left a towel covered in “s***” in another player’s sink after a “row”.
“I couldn’t help thinking, ‘This is a less than auspicious start to a World Cup campaign . . . ‘,” Haskell wrote.”
Further bad headlines followed during a team bonding trip to Queenstown after pictures emerged of some players wrestling on the floor with dwarfs at an event dubbed Mad Midget Weekend.
Haskell said the event “meant revellers could combine their drinking with a spot of dwarf tossing, if they so agreed.
“Niche, I’d agree, but it’s not as if the dwarves had been hunted down, caught in a net, bundled into the back of a van and held against their will.”
Despite the media reports, Haskell stated “there was not a single dwarf tossed by an England player”.
“The story I heard was that the dwarves, who were rugby fans, spent the night bantering and play-fighting with the lads, but nothing more sinister than that.”
During the same trip, the English media ran a succession of stories about Tindall socialising in a bar with a blonde woman, including photos of the pair.
“When the story appeared in The Sun, the dwarf-tossing played second fiddle to a stitch-up of Mike Tindall, who had apparently spent the night ‘flirting with a gorgeous blonde’. Utter bollocks,” Haskell wrote.
Haskell recalled the reaction from the British media to the England team during the tournament – who were misfiring on the field, as well as being caught up in a succession of off-field incidents – was brutal.
He said after the eventual quarter-final loss to France they were “called the worst England touring party of any kind, on a par with conquerors and plunderers of the Imperial age and 18th-century slave traders”.
More off-field drama was to follow the 19-12 loss to France; when a prank by Tuilagi’ssaw him being arrested.
“As if we need another turd on top of a very s*** cake, Manu Tuilagi decided to get pissed and jump off a ferry,” Haskell wrote.
“I’m told that someone had said, ‘I bet you won’t jump in,’ and Manu had replied, ‘Hold my beer’, before striping off and plunging into the sea. When Manu reached dry land, he was hooked out of the sea by is boxer shorts and promptly arrested.”
Lions star: ‘I thought we’d killed Rory Best’ during Auckland bender
James Haskell has revealed his fears that his actions during a frenzied drinking session after the British and Irish Lions’ test series against the All Blacks would lead to death of teammate and legendary Irish prop Rory Best.
The duo were among a group of players who went on a bender at their central Auckland hotel following the dramatic 15-15 draw with the All Blacks at Eden Park; a result which locked the test series at 1-1.
In Haskell’s new autobiography – What a Flanker – the retired 77-test star has opened up on the wild night in a section titled: “Almost Killing Rory Best”.
The booze fest began after Haskell went down for breakfast the morning after the dramatic test. One of the first people to meet him were teammates Best and fellow Ireland star Iain Henderson who “wandered in steaming drunk”.
“The first thing Rory said was, ‘Want a drink, Hask?’.” Haskell recalled in his new book.
He said for the next 15 hours the group “barely moved” from the table as the drinking heightened.
They were “shooting the s***, crying with laughter and ploughing through more drinks than George Best on a good day”.
Several other players joined them as the session continued, before players decided to don beer boxes on their heads with holes cut out for the eyes.
“After about seven hours, I noticed that Rory was starting to drift off. To be fair to him, he had been drinking for about 20 hours. So I said to him, ‘Come on old fella, let’s have a little lie down’,” Haskell wrote.
He then brought in a hospital bed from a team room and tucked Best in “so that he looked like a corpse”.
Haskell then came up with the idea of wheeling the sleeping Best onto o the street outside the team hotel. Then the group decided to push him the bed down a hill.
“For the first 10 seconds or so, we all thought this was one of the funniest things we’d ever seen – Rory Best, a pale corpse, gently rolling down a hill in a hospital bed,” Haskell wrote in What a Flanker
“As the hill became steeper, the bed picked up speed and panic set in.
“For a few moments, I thought we’d killed Rory Best, one of Ireland’s best rugby heroes, the pride of Ulster. But we – and more importantly, Rory, were saved by a fortuitous bend in the road, which sent him swerving into a bus stop, scattering commuters and depositing Rory on to the pavement.
“People were screaming because they thought he was a runaway corpse that had rolled out the back of some undertaker’s ambulance. Rory was just very confused.”
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