Chris Robshaw: The labours of leadership

Exclusive interview: Flanker tells Tim Rich he is still learning to separate the demands of being England captain from concentrating on his own game, how it all went wrong against South Africa – and the way the team rallied round their skipper

There are certain questions you don't expect to ask England's rugby captain, especially when he stands six foot two, weighs 17 stone plus and is sporting a good week's worth of beard: "So, Chris, what is your favourite coffee bean?"

"We've got a very good Ethiopian at the moment. I did a couple of barista courses over the summer but I am still trying to master the finer points of it all. The one problem I have is trying to finish off the tops of the coffees properly with a nice pattern." Are you an espresso or latte man? "Latte, definitely. Espressos are a bit strong for me. I might take one if I need a kick up the backside before kick-off." Kick-off for his Harlequins side is at Worcester tonight.

Chris Robshaw runs his own coffee bar, Black White Red, in Winchester, which is not the kind of liquid most usually associated with rugby. Blood and beer have played their part in Robshaw's elevation to the England captaincy, particularly the lager served up in the Altitude Bar in Queenstown, New Zealand where the Queen's grandson-in-law somehow became involved in their "Mad Midget Weekend".

No dwarfs were actually thrown by Mike Tindall but there was a blonde and he had just married Zara Phillips. Perhaps none of this would have resonated had England not produced a gratingly awful performance in the 2011 World Cup but they did and when Lewis Moody resigned the captaincy he mentioned the "naïve and totally unacceptable behaviour" in the south-west corner of the South Island.

Robshaw had not been selected for the World Cup and responded by leading Harlequins to 10 straight wins which helped earn their first Premiership title and wash away the image of a club where phials of blood were handed out to fake injury. There were some who questioned why someone who had played a single Test was now good enough in 2012 to captain England but Robshaw represented hard work, commitment and a kind of Bill Beaumont-ish decency that had got lost in the wash.

"I have never, ever thought of myself as No 1," he said. "Sean Fitzpatrick is on our board and from time to time he gives a speech. One of the things I always remembered was him saying that if you want to be out there on the pitch as the No 1 pick you have to think of yourself as the No 2 who has to take someone else's place.

"It just gave me that extra motivation and when everyone around you is pushing for the same thing you need something extra to get you there. I won't ever forget becoming England captain. There were three or four of us mentioned and you tell yourself that, if the offer came, you won't be swept away by it but when Stuart Lancaster took me into his office it was brilliant. I wanted it with both hands."

There are some who think he may not be reappointed for this November's internationals and there are some who thought it would be taken from him last November. There were two minutes left against South Africa and England, four points behind, chose to take a penalty rather than go for the try that would have drawn them level. Mike Catt on the England bench made frantic signals but Owen Farrell went ahead and kicked.

As a miscalculation it did not compare with South Africa's thinking they had done enough to beat Sri Lanka when, under the Duckworth-Lewis system, they required one more run – which cost them their place in their own cricket World Cup in 2003 and Shaun Pollock the captaincy. However, the reaction was vicious. The All Blacks, the world champions, were up next and when he scanned the papers Robshaw was told that the most he could hope for was an honourable defeat in what would be his last international.

When decisions like these are made a captain is usually sweaty, often tired and sometimes in pain. "Yes, and that's why I have sometimes struggled as captain early on with Harlequins," said Robshaw. "I was trying to do everything. I would go into the dressing room thinking: 'Is everyone OK?' or 'Does everyone know their job?' and the one person's game who was suffering was the one I wasn't paying attention to – my own.

"Dean Richards, who was our coach at the time, had to step in and tell me to relax. He said to me: 'Look, we are here for you. Our job is to take the pressure off you because what you do cannot be a one-man show.

"But the South Africa game was the first time I'd experienced what you might call the wrath of the media. I remember talking to other international captains, men like Andrew Strauss and Lawrence Dallaglio, about it.

"They told me that this kind of scrutiny goes with the job, sometimes the media will be for you and sometimes against you. You can't avoid it, you can't shape it, you just have to take it but it made me realise what a great group of characters I have in this England squad.

"I came in the next day, head bowed, a bit sheepish. I'd been up all night thinking about things and, one by one, they came up to me and said: 'Don't worry, we'll win the next one for you." The 'next one' was New Zealand.

"And we did win," he said with a grin. "I did appreciate how special it is – I don't think I have ever seen Twickenham when it's been rocking that much – but it goes quickly. It's not until the end of the season that you can look back and say: 'That was a pretty good year'. It was like the other day when we beat Wasps by a point. All I could think was: 'It's Worcester next and then it's Sarries'.

"Losing is different. Of course you remember the good times, beating the All Blacks, but the defeats hang around a bit longer. They are the ones that come and really beat you up. You say the obvious things after the game that you're going to make sure it doesn't happen again but it doesn't make it go away and you end up watching one game a lot of times." That would include the climax of last season's Six Nations in Cardiff? "Yes, that was a hard lesson but all lessons are in international sport, unfortunately."

We are sitting in a rather lovely pub in Beaconsfield called The Saracens Head, where Robshaw, after a double training session with Harlequins is drinking nothing stronger than orange juice and lemonade.

One of his sponsors, Maximuscle, has invited him to coach the town's rugby club for the night. You can usually gauge the measure of a sportsman by how he reacts to these occasions. Rio Ferdinand would throw himself into a school football session while other Manchester United players – and let us not mention the name Cristiano Ronaldo here – would spend a lot of time looking at their watches.

Robshaw wears a chunky Tag Heuer but that is the only flash thing about him. Naturally, he puts his back into it. "I do enjoy these kinds of things," he said. "I've got to know Jenson Button a bit and I was invited to Silverstone to watch the British Grand Prix at very close quarters.

"Down in the pit lane the tension was obvious but what I found fascinating was how media-focused Formula One is. The drivers are interviewed on their way to the car, they are interviewed the moment they get out. There are cameras everywhere."

You couldn't stand for that in rugby? "Well, actually I would because it brings people into the game. They enjoy the half-time chats, seeing what goes on in the tunnel. There should be more of that."

Given that his other half is represented by the blonde, glamorous figure of the classical singer Camilla Kerslake, who has sung the national anthem at Twickenham, Chris Robshaw would be used to cameras by now. It is time for a final question, another you would not expect to aim at a rugby player. Are you into opera, Chris?

"I am getting into it a bit. We went to see the Book of Mormon the other day which is fabulous." But you're not sitting down at home listening to Verdi? "No, not Verdi. Not yet anyway."

Chris Robshaw was speaking on behalf of Maximuscle - the sports nutrition product of choice for elite and amateur rugby players. Maximuscle have launched a Reward Scheme to help amateur rugby clubs raise their game, for more information visit www.maximuscle.com/grassroots

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