"You learn how to deal with it," says Chris Robshaw, "the good and the ugly."
It is two years since Robshaw was chosen by Stuart Lancaster as his England captain for the Six Nations, beginning a tenure that has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of an evolving leadership (the latter not of his own doing – a black eye to cap all black eyes against New Zealand last November). On Friday his name is set to again be the one the England coach places an asterisk alongside for the Six Nations – which England begin in Paris on 1 February – but for the first time since Lancaster initially decided Robshaw was his man, it will not be accompanied by doubts over the captain's immediate future, nor his place in the side.
Little more than two months ago Robshaw returned to the role with both it and his No 7 shirt resting uneasily on his shoulders. He had been overlooked by the Lions in favour of his Welsh counterpart, Sam Warburton, a fellow back-rower who for a time last year found even his national captaincy too great a burden, and was then instructed to take a complete break from the game by Lancaster. Robshaw sat at home over the summer and watched Tom Wood successfully stand in as captain and the bustling Matt Kvesic shine in the seven shirt as England won a stirring series victory in Argentina.
By the time the autumn internationals rolled around and Australia ambled into town, Robshaw's future as player and captain looked decidedly unsure. Lancaster stuck with his man and Robshaw repaid his coach's faith with not only his best performance as captain but also probably his best display in an England shirt, including his first try for his country, a crucial score to close a deficit that had threatened an Australian victory.
Robshaw is the epitome of a team man but that afternoon at Twickenham was one of the most personally satisfying he has experienced on a rugby pitch. "Yes I think so," he says. It was one of the highs in a year that seesawed between an encouraging Six Nations that came badly unstuck in Cardiff, followed by Lions rejection, beating Australia and then a rousing but fruitless engagement with the All Blacks.
"I have enjoyed it," says Robshaw. "I have had my ups and downs but that's common in most sports, isn't it? There is a good group of guys around me who have been very helpful to me and have stood up at various times. It is what me and the team have needed and as long as you have that support it makes it easier for yourself."
Lancaster has promised no surprises when he names his captain, and the verdict he delivered when choosing his squad for the Six Nations last week made it clear where Robshaw stands, and just how important that game against Australia and the rest of the autumn campaign was. "He improved in the areas we had asked him to, such as his speed over the floor and his decision-making at the breakdown," explained Lancaster. "He has a very high workrate, good handling skills and his leadership was another step up."
There have been several key moments in that leadership, one certainly schooled in the hardest of hard-knock establishments as Robshaw has learnt how to be an international player at the same time as how to be an international captain – he has led England in 19 of his 20 caps, winning a dozen times.
Most notoriously there was the fateful decision against South Africa in 2012 when he instructed Owen Farrell to kick for goal with time all but up and England trailing by four points. Robshaw, who has met with Andrew Strauss to pick the former England cricket captain's brain on leadership, prefers to select another moment as a staging post in discovering how to captain at the highest level. It came in June 2012, when an inexperienced England side were torn apart in the opening stages of a Test at Ellis Park, the heartland of South African rugby.
"You look back at Ellis Park and it was probably one of the most hostile places you could play, South Africa came out all guns blazing and we were about 20-0 down after 15 minutes," he says. Robshaw rallied his men and England saved face and plenty more, if not the match. Its memory still plays a part in today's England side. "We looked at the experience we had then and said we have almost come back from this before, we know what this is all about and we can kick on. We know how to play to our strengths."
Playing to our strengths: it is an approach that smacks of realism in a results business but it is not one that has always gone down well with the Twickenham crowd. There were autumnal mutterings about England's style of play at HQ.
"You have to be sensible," says Robshaw. "The crowd want to see free-flowing rugby but it is about playing territory and playing the numbers. If something is on to go then you go, wherever you are. There is more risk to something like that and you have to be sensible about it.
"You play to win the game, don't you? You find out what your strengths are and their weaknesses are, you try to use them as best as you can. You don't want to play to their strengths, especially if they are better than you at it."
Robshaw and Lancaster's relationship goes back to their days with England's second string, the Saxons. Robshaw describes the head coach as a "very thoughtful" man and one prepared to look towards other sports in order to improve his. Under Lancaster's guidance, Robshaw believes England have made good progress over the last year despite finishing as runners-up once more in the Six Nations, but accepts that coming second for a third year in succession is not enough.
"You look at the experience of the guys now, whether it's those who now have 20 caps, or guys getting to 50 caps," he says. "Dylan Hartley has done great – and there's Tom Youngs as well, competition we have in all positions now is pretty good. From loose-head prop all the way to full-back you have got three or four guys in every position. There are quite a few injuries on the wing but you look at the majority of positions, we have good strength in depth which is what we need.
"In our profession, where we are, is about winning, isn't it? It's what we are judged on. The last two years we have finished second and we want to improve on that and the only way to do that is to win the Six Nations. Of course you want to perform well and you want to score X amount of tries but at the end of the day it is about getting results."
Chris Robshaw was speaking at The GSK Human Performance Lab as an ambassador for Maxinutrition, the UK's leading sports nutrition brand: www.maxinutrition.comReuse content