Chris Robshaw can be the new Big Bill Beaumont
Only one Englishman has won a Grand Slam then captained a Lions tour, but Red Rose skipper is in line to repeat the feat
Chris Robshaw is two wins away from becoming England's fifth Grand Slam-winning captain since the war, and if he can follow it with selection as skipper of this summer's British & Irish Lions tour he will become only the third man from any country to do that double in the same year.
The Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, will reveal his choice to lead the tour to Australia on 30 April, and bookmakers Ladbrokes have Robshaw as odds-on 4-7 favourite to be captain, with the 2005 Lions skipper, Brian O'Driscoll, next at 2-1.
Of course, the Slam is a rarity on its own, though more common since the Five Nations became Six in 2000. England need to beat Italy at Twickenham next Sunday and Wales in Cardiff the following Saturday to do it but Bill Beaumont – whose Grand Slam with England followed by the Lions captaincy in 1980 replicated the achievement of Wales's John Dawes in 1971 – disagrees with the many observers who believe it would sway the decision in Robshaw's favour. "I am sure Gatland knows in his own mind now who he wants as captain," said Beaumont, who managed the 2005 Lions tour and now chairs the Rugby Football Union. "He's not going to wait to the last [Six Nations] game."
The Lions have not always travelled the obvious route, and if you fancy a bolter at odds of 33-1 or higher, how about Ireland's hooker Rory Best or the always impressive Tom Wood, who might have led England in last year's Six Nations but for injury. Sam Warburton's star has waned but he was Gatland's skipper for Wales's Grand Slam in 2012.
Robshaw became England's captain for that Championship and he is now in line to emulate England's post-war Slam skippers: Martin Johnson (2003), Will Carling (1991, '92 and '95), Beaumont (1980) and Eric Evans (1957).
England's head coach, Stuart Lancaster, has not been consulted by Gatland over the Lions captaincy, leaving that to Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, the English assistant coaches on the Lions tour. But Lancaster said last week of his right-hand man: "Chris's consistency of performances has been outstanding. Against France [the 23-13 win last weekend] he's topped our tackle count again and our carry count again. His versatility in his game- understanding and ability to manage the game while marrying the outside demands of international captaincy has improved massively."
Best's hooking position appears less contested than Robshaw's in the back row, and Gatland has previously declared a preference for an out-and-out fetcher openside in Australia, against whom the Harlequins flanker was arguably at his least effective when they met last November.
"You have to be nailed on to get in the team and Robshaw would be, whether you pick him at six or seven," said Beaumont. "Chris has been our outstanding performer in this Six Nations. He's done well at Harlequins, leading them to the Premiership title [in 2012] – it's Roy of the Rovers stuff, really.
"I was in the dressing room after the France game and I can see the others have respect for him. The one thing I tried to bring as captain was honesty on the field and in training. If you are always willing to do the horrible, grafting things, the team hopefully will follow you. Robshaw is a real leader on the field."
So did Gatland compromise himself with his bizarre reference recently to England players attracting more media attention? "He will pick the best players," said Beaumont. "Why wouldn't you? As coach, you want to be associated with success. And once that team's selected, you're a Lion, not an English Lion."
And what of Robshaw's decision-making in those pulse-racing moments on which a three-Test Lions tour might swing? Twice with Harlequins in the Heineken Cup last season he went bravely against conventional wisdom when the scores were tight by scrummaging instead of going for goal. In both cases Quins failed to score. Arguably it paid off against Gloucester when the opponents lost a prop to the sin-bin. But in Connacht, with Quins needing a win to reach the quarter-finals, they were knocked out 9-8.
After England's two losses last autumn there was much debate over Robshaw's preference for line-outs over kicks against Australia, followed by the fraught last few seconds against South Africa, when Owen Farrell appeared to argue with the captain's choice of a goal-kick.
Three weeks ago, when Robshaw was man of the match in the 12-6 win in Ireland, he was overruled by Farrell wanting to kick the last penalty into touch. England, as they did after the South Africa match, explained it away as due consultation.
Hardly any modern Lions captains have had the role on their first tour. Toby Flood, the fly-half who is likely to start against Italy owing to Farrell's strained quad muscle, highlighted that factor when asked Robshaw's qualities. "He's not a huge Churchillian speaker, inspiring through dramatic words or creating something theatrical," said Flood. "He does it by being him; he is first to every meeting, first to every training session. He's last out of the weights room and there longest after training, doing breakdown bits and bobs.
"He has no agendas as a bloke, he doesn't want to sing from the rooftops that he's achieved anything. It's all about the team, and people respect that and respond to it.
"When he needs to talk, he talks well, clearly and precisely. It's whether he'd want that responsibility [of the Lions], when he's going for his first time – it's a big step up and the media responsibility has changed dramatically. And he's only got 15 caps in comparison with some of the other contenders. But if he got it, I don't think it would faze him."
Robshaw v Beaumont
Opera singer Camilla Kerslake's squeeze, Chris Robshaw, is togged up as an airline pilot for a current Guinness ad campaign, whereas Bill Beaumont was known for his cuddly sweaters on A Question of Sport in the 1980s and '90s, and will reappear for the 1,000th edition of the BBC quiz tomorrow. As captain of England in 14 of his 15 Tests, Robshaw has nine wins; Beaumont led his country 21 times from 1978-82, winning 11 and drawing two. He joined the 1977 Lions as a replacement, then captained them in South Africa in 1980, losing a very tight Test series 3-1.
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