Chris Robshaw: The sudden rise of England's one-cap captain

Chris Robshaw makes clever on-field decisions, is a solid trainer and is good with words...traits that have earnt him the captaincy against Scotland. Those and a likeness to World Cup-winner Richard Hill

Chris Robshaw has a single international cap to his name, having made his England debut in Argentina in the summer of 2009, when most of the big back-row hitters were on Lions duty in South Africa. So if rich experience of Test rugby was fairly low on the Harlequins flanker's list of unique selling points when Stuart Lancaster awarded him the red-rose captaincy on Sunday night, and banished him to his hotel room with an order not to breathe a word of it to anyone, what were the credentials that counted in his favour?

Lancaster had all his answers off pat yesterday when he was grilled on the subject at England's training base in Surrey. "I've worked with Chris on previous occasions and I know how he conducts himself," said the interim head coach. "Captaincy is a combination of things: it's about decision-making on the field, of course, but it's also about the lead an individual gives in training, in building the team environment. As important as anything else is the ability to say the right thing at the right time. Chris has shown all these qualities in taking Harlequins to where they are now."

All the same, it is surely a risk to settle on a member of the "one-cap wonder" brigade: perhaps the biggest risk since 1984, when the brilliant young scrum-half Nigel Melville was given the England captaincy on debut and suffered a suitably Orwellian trial of mind, body and spirit against a rampant Wallaby side who went on to complete a Grand Slam tour.

"I suppose," replied Lancaster, cool as you like, "that it seems a bit of a risk to put in an interim head coach a few weeks before a Six Nations Championship and let him get on with it. But there's no risk if you're confident the person concerned can perform the role and perform it well."

At 25, Robshaw finds himself in an interesting place. Long tipped by some to play at No 8 against the Scots at Murrayfield on Saturday, his chances were dismissed by others who felt he would struggle for a back-row starting berth – that even in the absence of Tom Wood, the Northampton flanker who would surely have led the side but for injury, there were better options across the breakaway unit. Robshaw has in fact been selected as a flanker and if, as is generally assumed, he is on the open side, he will find himself sorely tested by John Barclay, the possession-pilfering bandit from Glasgow.

This does not worry him a jot. "I'm pretty relaxed about the process at the moment," Robshaw said. "I'll get more nervous as the week goes on – Murrayfield is a daunting place – but as things stand I just feel so honoured, so privileged. The players have been brilliant: Stuart told me to stay in my room and not speak to anyone for half an hour while he saw the people he needed to see, but when I went into the team meeting I was given a round of applause. And before that, Dylan Hartley [the Northampton hooker who was his most obvious rival for the captaincy] gave me a big hug and said, 'Well done.'

"It won't be run as a dictatorship: I'm not one for big speeches and I know I'll need the support of the senior players around me. I'll take an overview and since the buck will be stopping with me, I'll be making the final call on things. But when it comes to running the line-out, the defence, the attacking game... a captain has to trust people to help out in those areas. My first thought is to go out there and be who I am, which is what got me here in the first place."

Robshaw has a two-game window of opportunity: the Calcutta Cup match this weekend, followed by an awkward trip to Italy seven days later. "Then," Lancaster said, "we'll take a step back, draw breath and see where we are."

Being one of life's strong, silent types, the new captain was not remotely tempted to think past Edinburgh, let alone beyond Rome. Apart from anything else, he is deeply conscious of captaincy's inherit dangers – its potential for distraction and distortion.

"When I was first made captain at Quins, I immediately tried to do too much," he said. "I became stressed at the very first training session. It was Nick Easter [dropped as England's No 8 after the World Cup last autumn] who came up and said, 'Relax, we're all here to help you.' I needed that."

Born in Redhill, the business management graduate received a top-class sporting education at Millfield School – the Gloucester backs Olly Morgan and Anthony Allen, both capped in 2007, played in the same team – and won England honours at under-18 and under-21 levels, winning a Grand Slam in the first side and playing at a Junior World Cup with the second. A member of the Quins academy, he broke into the senior side in 2006, celebrating with a brace of tries.

"If he reminds me of anyone," said Mark Evans, who was chief executive at Quins when Robshaw first played with the grown-ups, "Richard Hill is the man." Would that be the Richard Hill, the World Cup-winning flanker who formed a great back-row combination with Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio and, in the eyes of many good judges, was the best player of the three – indeed, one of the finest half-dozen loose forwards ever produced by England. If it is, Evans has some substantiating to do.

"Honestly, I see him as a similar kind of player," he said, confirming that he was indeed talking of the revered Lions flanker. "[Robshaw] can play across the back row, his work-rate is second to none, he makes very few mistakes and he has a phenomenal engine. That's the most striking thing: his energy, his relentlessness, his ability to absorb punishment and keep going. His success as a captain at Quins is rooted in the respect he commands from his peers. He's also a useful line-out forward and a highly intelligent player, incredibly good with his decision-making around the tackle area."

Evans stopped just short of claiming that Robshaw donates all his money to the destitute, is kind to kittens and helps old ladies across the road, but it was quite a paean. Justified? We will know more on Saturday evening.

Callow captains: England's rawest leaders

Keith Scott

Cornish centre began as a cricketer before turning to rugby. Made England captain in 1948, after just one appearance, he led the side again but soon returned to cricket.

 

Nigel Melville

Uncapped scrum-half became captain aged 23, against Australia in 1984. Appeared 12 more times before becoming a successful coach.

Will Carling

Became the youngest captain since 1931, aged 22, in 1988. He had seven caps. Won Grand Slams in 1991, 1992 and 1995 and made the 1991 World Cup final.

 

Pat Sanderson

Worcester flanker, capped just nine times, led the tour of Australia in 2006. England lost both tour matches and Sanderson was dropped later in the year.

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