Chris Robshaw's England captaincy credentials on the line
England flanker will face intense scrutiny against Boks after decision to pass up penalty shots backfires
Chris Robshaw, the flanker who has played a central role in restoring the credibility of the England team following the crass excesses that wrecked last year's World Cup campaign, faces the most difficult week of his captaincy career. Widely condemned for his tactics in the 20-14 weekend defeat by Australia at Twickenham, the Harlequins skipper finds himself under intense scrutiny as the Springboks loom large on the Twickenham horizon.
Robshaw was taken to task by many for his decision to pass up penalty shots at goal in favour of a series of attacking line-outs either side of the hour-mark in Saturday's game. The Wallabies were six points ahead, and while a converted England try would have wiped out that advantage and put the home side in a position to win, experienced rugby figures thought the captain would have been better off cutting the deficit to three points, secure in the knowledge that there was enough time to mount further attacks.
Critics included the World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward, who said that even if the No 8 Thomas Waldrom had scored from one of the close-range assaults instigated by Robshaw rather than dropped the ball over the line, it would still have been the "wrong decision", because Australia would have played in a "different way" in the last quarter. The good knight also had Stuart Lancaster, the current red-rose boss, in his sights.
"The biggest thing is trying to be smart ahead of the game," Woodward remarked in a BBC radio interview, rather skating over the fact that his own side once lost a tight game with Wales after rejecting simple shots at goal. "If you go for the line-out and the try, you have to score: if you don't, you give huge momentum to the defending team. The secret to coaching is getting these things into the players' heads before they go on the pitch, so they know what is going to happen in every single situation.
"You don't get many chances to beat Australia. They were short of six or seven front-line players, so this was a big chance lost. Stuart Lancaster has an opportunity to make his mark as a coach this week because England will go into the South Africa game as underdogs. They have to understand that international rugby is a very tough business. He [Lancaster] has to pick a tougher team."
Even though Robshaw was outplayed for more than 50 minutes by the new Wallaby back-rower Michael Hooper, he will lead whatever team the coach selects for the fourth and last of this year's meetings with the second best side in the world. The captain was, however, in two minds about his own decision-making when pressed on the subject after the final whistle on Saturday. "We thought we had them in the line-out and if Tom Waldrom had touched the ball down it would have been a huge momentum shift towards us," he said. "All this is easy in hindsight, isn't it? I'm very disappointed at the result and I'll go away now and have a sulk. As for those decisions, it's something for me to look back on."
Lancaster was in no mood to participate in any blame game. "The last thing we coaches want to do is start criticising," he said. "As a coaching team we back our players: if we want to give them the confidence to go out and play, which we do, we have to back them." He did add, however, that "if we're going to kick to the corner, we have to take the opportunities that arise from it".
Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, also spoke in support of Robshaw. "People make those decisions in real time," he said, apparently with complete sincerity. "England were looking to win the game: had they kicked the first of their penalties, they weren't assured of getting such good field position again. It was a reflection of how they were feeling at that stage of a very intense contest."
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