Chris Robshaw out to prove himself as leader and move England up a gear
Captain can put tough last year behind him, starting with challenge of Australia on Saturday
Things went wrong for Chris Robshaw this time last autumn, when England played the Wallabies at Twickenham and Michael Hooper, the red-rose captain's opposite number, operated behind enemy lines with spectacular effect. "No one in the England team recognised Hooper at the after-match banquet," said one wag, "because all they'd seen of him during the game was the back of his head." It was, in the eyes of many good judges, the most startling back-row performance of the year.
While things started going right for Robshaw a couple of weeks later, when the world champions from New Zealand suffered a record defeat in the capital, they went wrong again at the back end of the Six Nations Championship as England took a record hiding of their own at the Millennium Stadium. And they kept going wrong. He failed to make the squad for the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia; Harlequins, his club side, relinquished their Premiership title; Stuart Lancaster, the national coach, decided England should travel to South America without him. All things considered, he ended the season down on the deal.
Retained as captain by Lancaster – and rightly so, for no one has given more of himself in resurrecting England's rugby fortunes following the team's slow and agonising death at the 2011 World Cup – he is expected to run into Hooper again this weekend when Australia return to take another swipe at the old country. Yet if anything keeps him awake at night, it is not the thought of another meeting with the 22-year-old Sydneysider. Or, indeed, his brutal rejection by the Lions.
"The darkest moment was losing the Grand Slam game in Cardiff," he said. "That was a tough one, and after something like that happens to you, it takes time to get back up and brush yourself off. I'm thankful that I had great people around me – coaches, players, friends, family, loved ones. Everyone goes through rough times and when you do, you need that support."
Talking of which, the backing he has received just recently from those players punted as rival candidates for the England captaincy – the Northampton forwards Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley, the Leicester lock Geoff Parling – meant a great deal to him. "It's good to hear that from your team-mates, the people you battle against at club level and in training and then play alongside on Test day. It's important for us to know that we all have each others' backs, that when the going gets tough we'll stick together. I think the unity in this squad is special."
Robshaw was one of those who, as the rubble of the Grand Slam dream was being swept into rubbish bins and dumped on the outskirts of Cardiff, insisted that such a humiliation could not be countenanced again. This weekend is his first opportunity to make good on the pledge. "It's about finding the next gear," he said. "We should be expecting to win these games. We're at home; there'll be 80,000 people in the ground, most of them English. Of course we should expect victory.
"Two years out from a World Cup in this country, everyone coming to Twickenham will be looking to get an edge over us – especially Australia and Wales, who are both in our pool for that tournament. What we need more than anything, apart from getting our preparation absolutely right, is a sense of personal pride. If you look at the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, England had a four-year unbeaten run at Twickenham. It's about making Twickenham a really tough place for people to come and play. But that doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of hard work."
England fell off the 2003 pace a year ago, but they can still piece together a three-year run on the old cabbage patch before taking on the world. It is a big ask – the All Blacks are here in a little over a fortnight; Wales will come knocking after Christmas – but as Robshaw acknowledged, the time for learning lessons has passed. England have left the classroom and entered the examination hall.
"We've had a lot of experiences over the last 18 months or so, some of them good, some tough," he said. "Now, it's about showing what we're about."
Women draw in-form Canadians
England's women have drawn Canada, Spain and Samoa in their pool for the Women's Rugby World Cup to be held in Paris next August.
England, who have been runners-up in the last three World Cups, lost to Canada in the final of the Nations Cup in August.
New Zealand, who have won the last four tournaments, will take on Six Nations champions Ireland, Kazakhstan and the United States in their pool.
The Black Ferns have not played against the US for a decade. In their last World Cup meeting, the New Zealanders beat the American Eagles in the 1998 final in Amsterdam to begin their domination of the event.
The third group features the hosts France, Australia, Wales and South Africa.
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