Looking back on his first Six Nations tournament, the new England captain Chris Robshaw finds it hard to suppress a smile. “It’s been a brilliant campaign,” he says.
“A lot of people didn’t give us a chance. On Saturday we played an Irish side that hadn’t lost to England in eight games, and we won well. It shows how far we have come in such a short space of time. Just compare the Scotland win — which, I think we can admit, was an ugly win — to the Ireland game, you’d think it was a different team. The momentum is fantastic.”
As far as Robshaw is concerned, there is one overriding reason for the new sense of forward propulsion in the England squad: the man in the coach’s box, quietly analysing his team’s every move.
“It shows what Stuart [Lancaster] has created,” he says. “He has developed this environment where we want to perform for each other, for the shirt and for him. He’s given us the freedom to go out and express ourselves. He hasn’t done it alone; the other coaches have been fantastic. But Stuart’s been great.”
Were the members of the Rugby Football Union who are tasked with appointing a successor to Martin Johnson as England supremo to listen to the man closest to the action – the England captain – there would be no doubt in their mind: Lancaster, the interim coach, should be gifted the job immediately. Of course, a cynic might suggest Robshaw would say that. A man who didn’t make the cut for Johnson’s World Cup party, who watched the embarrassment Down Under unfold on television; indeed, who had only turned out for his country once before, is likely to be loyal to the coach who gave him such sudden elevation. Except what Robshaw says touches a nerve. In order to reconnect with their core constituency, England needed to regroup, refocus, re-engage.
After the arrogance of ‘dwarfgate’, the bullying of chambermaids and stinking out the field of play, a little bit of humility was required in the lilywhite shirt. Lancaster has achieved just that. It is a turnaround writ large in the character of his captain. Robshaw is the polite, engaging, respectful face of England’s new rugby order.
“This campaign was about rebuilding the image and I think Stuart has done that,” he says. “He got us out there coaching in the community, took us to Leeds, gave us a series of fantastic outside speakers, set out the common goal. He told us from the off we had to do two things to put the smile back on the face of English rugby: make Twickenham a fortress again, and build to being the best team in the world by the 2015 World Cup. That’s not going to come on the back of one win, or one campaign. It will only come with constantly understanding who we are and what we are about. We have to be aware of our responsibilities every time we pull on the shirt.”
For Robshaw it has been an astonishing couple of months. ‘‘Surreal’’ is the word he uses several times to describe his vertiginous ascent into the wider public consciousness. Captain of Harlequins he may have been, but becoming skipper of his country was a promotion so sudden he admits it momentarily nonplussed him.
“When Stuart said he wanted me to do it, of course I was very honoured. But I’d no idea what to expect. Actually, I’d been to an England game only once, even as a spectator. It was an 18th birthday present. And Charlie Hodgson was playing. I don’t think he liked me reminding him of that.”
Singing the national anthem at Twickenham was, he says, the moment that everything changed, the moment that will stick with him permanently.
“When you’re 15 watching on the telly at home and the camera goes along the line it’s a funny emotion: you want to be there but don’t believe you ever can be. So when you’re singing on the pitch – probably horribly out of tune – it is where you have wanted to be all your life. That is a very special place.” And, as you might expect of a man with such a sense of duty, Robshaw has taken to his new responsibilities with gusto.
“People have been asking me, what do you say before games,” he says. “I didn’t spend hours preparing. A lot of it comes spontaneously. When I was first made captain at Harlequins I think I tried to do too much. It wasn’t till Nick Easter said ‘relax, we’re here to help’ that I started to grow into it. You have to do two things: play your own game, because that’s what got you there in the first place, and trust all the other leaders out there to help you. Trust the guy doing the line-out to do the right thing. Trust the front five. What was amazing for me was how everyone wanted the same thing. The help I got from the rest of the team – Ben Foden through to the front row – was incredible.”
And, he says, he has quickly, in the full beam glare of the Six Nations, developed a philosophy for leadership.
“I think a great team is one that plays for each other. First and foremost your team-mates have to respect you as a player. You are the mediator between the coaches and the players, and they have to believe you would do what you are asking them to do. Otherwise you’ll get found out. I have read the odd military book, I’ve read Sean Fitzpatrick’s book and spoken at length with him. I thought about all the captains I’ve worked under, from school through to first playing as a pro. The temptation is to try to be these people. But ultimately you realise you should absorb their best characteristics into your own game. I’m trying to put my own mark on it. What that mark is, well, I guess time will tell.”
One thing is for sure, it has been a demanding process, an exhausting round of smiles and handshakes and remembering to slip the appropriate sponsor’s name into conversation. But then, there are perks. Gifted a week off by Quins, Robshaw is on his way for a sunshine break in Abu Dhabi, courtesy of the club’s main sponsors, Etihad, giving him the chance to recharge ahead of the domestic season’s run-in.
“Yeah, it’s been utterly surreal,” he says of the new whirlwind spin of his life. “But I’m not complaining. When you’re winning and doing well and people compliment you, it’s lovely. Seriously, what could be nicer?’’
I think that I would have congratulated Chris on his outstanding work with England, asked him to play the next 2 Quins games and then tell him that, to show our immense gratitude, he is being given an all expense paid Easter weekend (with friends) in the South of France near St Tropez and to take his kit just in case!
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