James Haskell says Dubai Expo 2020 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

The former rugby player was enthusiastic about the UAE event
REUTERS/ANDREW BOYERS - James Haskell, Former England rugby player James Haskell toured Expo 2020 Dubai on Tuesday ahead of the upcoming Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, which starts on Thursday 2 December

REUTERS/ANDREW BOYERS  -   Former England rugby player James Haskell toured Expo 2020 Dubai on Tuesday ahead of the upcoming Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, which starts on Thursday 2 December

Former England rugby player James Haskell toured Expo 2020 Dubai on Tuesday ahead of the upcoming Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, which kicks off on Thursday 2 December.

Haskell, one of England's top rugby players, described his excitement at visiting the Expo and spoke about the upcoming tournament as well as his plans for the future.

The Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens signifies a major international rugby tournament in the northern hemisphere and continues. Whatever the risks of future variants of COVID-19, must he be enjoying seeing rugby back, alive and kicking?

"I feel very fortunate to be here as an ambassador for Emirates Dubai Sevens. We had amazing autumn internationals all over Europe, and we are back at the exclusive Emirates Dubai Sevens tournament, which is the biggest and best in the world. People have been missing out on rugby. We are done with this COVID-19 process - let's get on with it and enjoy an amazing tournament in one of the best countries in the world.

Which team do you think will win the Sevens?

"Last week, the [first] tournament was held behind closed doors, while this [second tournament] is played in front of the crowd. South Africa did very well to win. You know the crowd will also have an influence and the Fijians love to perform in front of a full house, which we hope to see this week."

What are your first impressions of the Expo?

"I have been coming to Dubai for several years; this is probably my 25th trip here. I think the Expo is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it's amazing to see how engaged people are - each participating country has created a fantastic pavilion. There are fantastic experiences and iconic events here and I'm very, very excited to be here. I want to see what the UK Pavilion has to offer, apparently it's very much based on artificial intelligence, plus the Emirates Pavilion, which looks at the future of commercial aviation. I'm looking forward to seeing how they do it. I'm also looking forward to seeing lots of food stalls, as eating is my second passion."

There is a big debate in rugby at the moment about player safety, specifically with regards to head injuries. You had a lot of tackles in your time, can the current way of playing the game continue or should the rules evolve?

"I'm a strong advocate of changing the way players are looked after and the amount of contact they make during training, which I think needs to change. Rugby is a contact sport, which is dangerous, like boxing. You can't ask boxers to punch lightly, just as you can't ask players to tackle lightly. You have to be aware of the risks, but could we take better care of the players? Yes. Do we need to make so much contact in training? Absolutely not. Do we need to look at players' welfare and how much recovery we allow them? Yes. Do we need to get rid of the seven-day type of protocol and go back to 21 days for the initial impact? One hundred percent. A lot of this has been debated, but I think there's a lot more we can do - we need to stop talking and act.

The England rugby team that emerged this season is starting to show a generational change, with Eddie Jones promoting some young players, who seem to have done well and achieved good results. What is your view on Eddie Jones' style and how this team is evolving?

"Eddie Jones is the best coach I have ever worked with. I have won 77 games and I would have traded the first 50 to work more with him. I think he always backs his players and in 2018 he changed the team before they got to the World Cup final. He did exactly the same in 2020, and the World Cup is coming up pretty quickly. There is an opportunity to bring in new players to give them experience this fall. They've had a couple of narrow wins - is it as polished as they would like it to be? No, but it will take a little time to get there and I think he's the best man for the job.

You've now taken a step back from your ambitions of fighting in mixed martial arts. What do you plan to do next in your career?

"I started my MMA journey with real intensity. We trained for a year, but COVID-19 got in the way of my first fight. Unfortunately, due to injury, I had spinal surgery two months ago. I am now on the road to recovery, but it has meant that I have changed my priorities. My second book is already published, and another book will be out in 2022; my third house music track is also available right now. I'm DJing all over the world and I've just started my live show, which includes nine minutes of stories and stand-up, so I have enough to keep me going for the rest of my life instead of worrying about the fights. I want to keep evolving and improving on those fronts, and my aspirations to perform and continue to be a colossal show are bright."

Text, photos and video: Dubai Expo 2020.