Chris Robshaw: Back from the beach and raring to go
England's captain missed out on the Lions tour and he knows the way he starts the season with Quins will be key to getting back in the national side too
If Chris Robshaw felt bereft at being an onlooker during the important rugby business of the summer – the winning Lions tour of Australia, the winning England tour of Argentina – it did not prevent him enjoying the trappings associated with captaining his country for the previous 18 months. "I've done some brilliant things," he said. "I went to Silverstone to meet Jenson Button; I played a round of golf with Rory McIlroy at Wentworth. It's been a hugely privileged position I've been in, and not for one second do you take stuff like that for granted because you know at any moment it could disappear. You enjoy it – but first and foremost you play rugby, don't you? You make sure you perform and hopefully you're winning."
Not this summer, though. The official line is that once Robshaw was overlooked by the Lions, his England and Harlequins coaches – Stuart Lancaster and Conor O'Shea respectively – ordered him to take a rest. Each would have had their reasons. O'Shea's Quins lost their Premiership semi-final last season at Leicester, when Robshaw was missing injured. Having since had a couple of beach holidays followed by a full pre-season programme, he is "fresh and ready to go" for next week's Aviva Premiership kick-off against Wasps at Twickenham.
Meanwhile Lancaster was able to try out new combinations and players – including Gloucester's fast-breaking, ball-scavenging openside Matt Kvesic and the bullocking Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola – on a trip to South America where England won the Test series against an understrength Argentina 2-0. Tom Wood was captain, and many pundits see the Northampton back-rower as likely to retain the role when the national team meet in October ahead of the autumn internationals.
"Every season you want to be a better player and playing in a better team than you were last season," Robshaw said. "Everyone wants to be in that starting XV for England. [But] there's eight club games to play before England meet up and you've got to make sure you're playing well and you're fit. It's all about Harlequins at the moment. We've got five massive Premiership games from which we want to take momentum into Europe."
There is a little of the new-age, small-screen superstar about Robshaw – the hair crimped into a pyramid, the occasional red-carpet venture chaperoning his opera singer girlfriend Camilla Kerslake – but a hell of lot more of the archetype of the English flanker who has toiled the turf of English public schools (he went to Millfield) and London clubs for decades longer than BT ever fought Sky over rugby TV rights. Nostrils flared, knees pumping, stout heart beating, Robshaw is as likely to smash an opponent in the tackle in the 80th minute as in the first.
The 27-year-old Harlequin's problem is not a lack of quality; just that as an all-rounder, he may not hold down any of the jerseys numbered six, seven and eight when everyone is available. That was certainly the verdict against him with the Lions' coach Warren Gatland. A clutch of occasions when Robshaw's decision-making was questioned in its correctness and decisiveness did not help, although he will forever have a famous victory over the All Blacks among his 10 wins and six losses as England captain.
BT are paying around £100m to broadcast live Premiership matches exclusively for the next four years. The newbies promise cameras in dressing rooms and player interviews at half-time but these are voluntary on the clubs' part, and Harlequins have declined both ideas. Instead Mark Mapletoft, the 2012 champions' backs coach, will speak during next Saturday's match against Wasps.
Robshaw cut to the obvious flaw if anyone is expecting in-depth revelations. "A player interview could be interesting," he said. "But it could potentially give you an angle on the other team.
"We're not doing it but if we're playing Leicester, say, and I come off and go, 'Oh, they've exploited us loads around the wingers and we're struggling', someone on their side will hear it and say, 'we'll keep doing it because they can't deal with it'."
In three pre-season matches – Quins lost 28-40 to Racing Métro in Geneva, and beat London Scottish 40-15 and Glasgow Warriors 19-16, both at home – Robshaw has seen the on-trial scrum engagement result in long scrums, quick scrums, and scrums going up and down. A work in progress, let's say.
Dean Richards, the new-old face among the Premiership's coaches, once of Harlequins and now with promoted Newcastle, has brought his customary barb to the prediction game, omitting Quins from a group of three clubs – Leicester, Saracens and Northampton – he regarded as a class above the other nine.
"I think it's always very competitive," said Robshaw, "and what people like about our league is anyone can beat anyone on their day. No one expected Northampton to win at Saracens in the semi-finals last season. The better teams know how to grind it out when they don't play well. We fell short and it's about learning from what we did.
"There are days when the sun's shining and you can play free-flowing rugby but there are some wet and miserable days, when you put the ball up your jumper and just kick your goals.
"I think you've got to make sure you're in the top four, and not just at the end. You want to be the ones chasing the leaders, which will be Leicester, I'm sure, being the champions."
Quins have recruited a pair of England exiles: Nick Kennedy from Toulon to grease the wheels of the line-out and nurture George Merrick and Sam Twomey; the effervescent Paul Sackey to provide experienced cover on the wing. Paul Doran-Jones from Northampton takes over from the mighty tighthead James Johnston, who has gone to Saracens.
As for the golf… "I halved the first hole with Rory and that was as good as it got," Robshaw said, and though he saw the joke that it might have been wise to walk off then, there was no chance of him giving up.
What's new this season: Fresh faces and whole new ball game in the scrum...
The two Deans, Ryan and Richards, at Worcester and promoted Newcastle. In the Pro 12, Matt O'Connor (formerly at Leicester) takes over the champions Leinster, while Lyn Jones swaps London Welsh for Newport Gwent Dragons.
Top forwards on the move
Alex Corbisiero (London Irish to Northampton), Matt Kvesic (Worcester to Gloucester), James Johnston (Harlequins to Saracens), Billy Vunipola (Wasps to Saracens), Matthew Rees (Scarlets to Cardiff Blues), Gethin Jenkins (Toulon to Cardiff Blues), John Barclay (Glasgow to Scarlets), Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys to Worcester), Nick Kennedy (Toulon to Harlequins), Jérôme Schuster (Perpignan to Leicester), Andy Saull (Saracens to Newcastle), Agustin Creevy (Montpellier to Worcester).
... and backs
George North (Scarlets to Northampton), Jonathan Joseph (London Irish to Bath), Kahn Fotuali'i (Ospreys to Northampton), George Ford (Leicester to Bath), Jimmy Gopperth (Newcastle to Leinster), Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets to Gloucester), Andy Goode (Worcester to Wasps), Paul Sackey (Stade Français to Harlequins).
Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues to Racing Métro), Dan Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons to Racing Métro), Jim Hamilton (Gloucester to Montpellier), Jonny Sexton (Leinster to Racing Metro), Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati (both Northampton to Racing Métro)
BT's takeover from Sky brings us Wednesday's 'Rugby Tonight' and match coverage including a kicking-tee camera and half-time interviews.
TV match official
Will cover every Premiership match instead of just the live TV ones. Still the onus in many incidents remains on the referee to decide whether to trust his judgement or 'go upstairs'.
Crouch, bind, set
The on-trial change in scrum engagement has players and coaches moaning they haven't had time to adjust. Just put the ball in straight and push nicely.
An uncertain future
The bickering over the Heineken Cup means clubs are unsure what European competitions, if any, they are qualifying for in 2014-15.
Premiership top four: Leicester, Saracens, Harlequins, Northampton; bottom four: Sale, London Irish, Worcester, Newcastle. Pro 12 top four: Leinster, Ulster, Glasgow, Munster; bottom four: Edinburgh, Treviso, Connacht, Zebre.
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