England vs Australia RWC 2015: Chris Robshaw fails to inspire in England’s hour of need

Captain resorts to cliches in his pre-match briefing and cannot shed perception of him being merely workmanlike

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The Independent Online

“Can we open these doors?” said Stuart Lancaster, wanting someone to let the fresh lunchtime air in on his reflections and propping them open with chairs to keep it that way. His captain, Chris Robshaw, had ploughed through his discussion with them tight shut, as impervious to his environment as he seemed to have been to the way his game and faculty to make decisions under pressure have been cut apart in the past six days.

Stuart Lancaster on Australia

It is a habit of Robshaw’s to conclude answers with the words “isn’t it?” as if he isn’t quite so sure, and though it was probably helpful that he refused to be drawn into the distraction of verbal warfare with the many who have questioned him since Saturday, he really did not seem like a man you would look to in the eye of a storm. This has been the week when a richly enhanced perspective on the England football captain Wayne Rooney was offered, in preview copies of the new TV film, The Man Behind the Goals, which sees him articulate his perspective on football and life. You sense that Robshaw, a year Rooney’s junior, would not be such a good source of material. It was difficult to judge the tone of his recent answer to the question of what he would do if made Major of London for a day. “Go to London Zoo,” he said.

 Who knows? History may come to judge him as the man who rose from the ignominy of that fateful decision to kick for touch rather than the posts in the game against Wales to lift the World Cup. The permutations still include the possibility of England topping their group, if they beat Australia tomorrow. But if you were looking for the spark of indignation; evidence that the leader had addressed the players personally about the importance of putting that 78th-minute decision to bed, or instigated a discussion about what might happen if the kicking decision presented itself again, then there was only disappointment. Robshaw offered us commonplaces: “backs-to-the-wall” attitude, “must-win”, “rough with the smooth”, “good times, bad times: deal with both” and “find out the character of the individuals”. 

He really did not seem like a man you would look to in the eye of a storm


A discussion of the sports psychologist in the camp – “a guy, Bill,” as Robshaw described Bill Beswick – underlined the sense that the ancillary aspects of sports science have not captivated him. “He [Beswick] speaks to the guys individually, uses mottos and bits like that to help,” Robshaw explained, not capturing this science quite as Beswick, who has worked with the England football team and Manchester United, would have chosen. An escape from the week’s mental pressures has been pursued by walking the dog, a little Affenpinscher called Rico, on Wandsworth Common. “I’m sure for everyone in this room you do something different to relax, don’t you?” Robshaw said. “Richie McCaw flies gliders. Tom Wood likes shooting his bow and arrow, Tom Youngs likes to go farming… everyone has got something. It doesn’t have to be something extravagant and whatever it is, use it.” To the suggestion that a less solitary activity might help him escape the confines of his mind, he said it was the company you keep that matters.

All that really matters, of course, is the rugby, welcome though a capacity to make us feel all will be well against Michael Cheika and Co tomorrow would be. The reasons for optimism actually include the Australian habit of conceding penalties – 11 of them against Fiji and 12 against Uruguay, with Owen Farrell’s deadeye kicking  re-enforcing the idea of him making hay. 

But the Australian danger is located in that ability to fetch the ball from the breakdown; the strength, fleetness of mind and dexterity to see daylight around the ball carrier and to turn it over. That was the quality which dominated  Lancaster’s discussion of his next opponents yesterday, with the fabled “Pooper” combination – David Pocock at No 8 and Michael Hooper on the openside – unmistakeably the ones who have exercised  England’s minds. 

Robshaw is the player England look to for this quality, with the eligibility rules Lancaster sets such store in excluding Steffon Armitage as he plays his club rugby on the other side of the English Channel. The gulf was laid bare rather bleakly by the Japan coach, Eddie Jones, when he assessed Robshaw’s openside limitations in yesterday’s Daily Mail. “He is an outstanding club player but at international level he doesn’t have that point of difference. He carries OK, he tackles OK, but he’s not outstandingly good in any area,” Jones said.

Versatile, competent, workmanlike: these are the perceptions the captain has yet to shake off, even though he regularly tops a game’s tackle count. Lancaster quite honestly had bigger selection issues to defend and passed up the chance to offer a personal defence of his captain. “It’s tough being head coach, it’s tough being captain and it’s tough being involved in the international team when you’ve lost a game of rugby – a game of that size,” he said.

We will talk through as many scenarios as we can  but they’ll have to feel it on the field

Stuart Lancaster, England head coach

At a team meeting last night, Lancaster took the players through more scenarios, including that of another penalty at the death, though he was exasperated by the suggestion that he can prepare players for defining moments like last Saturday’s. “There are all sorts of permutations that we couldn’t work out in the cold light of day,” he said. “This notion I can magically get a message on is impossible. It’s collective decision-making. We will talk through as many scenarios as we can and give them situations to think about and they’ll have to feel it on the field.”

Lancaster: England 'must win'

That was the quality which always impressed Lancaster in Martin Johnson when he, like Robshaw, captained England. “[Johnson] would say there’s a feeling in the game; a feeling and a pulse whether the kicker can nail the kick, or whether they’d score off the lineout,” he said. 

Robshaw does not look or sound like a captain of such proportions but who knows? There is no better time to confound expectations than a judgement day. One of those is almost upon us.