Robshaw goes straight to the top of the class
England have much to do but display of maturity bodes well for future
Sunday 02 December 2012
As a coming-of age-party, this was remarkable. England, of course, remain a work in progress and will find backing up such a result in the new year even more difficult, now they have downed so dramatically the top-ranked team in the world and made of themselves even more of a target in the Six Nations' Championship.
Yet these are the games that change boys to men. England this autumn had looked more like youthful hopefuls than a team of such maturity that they could manipulate a New Zealand team – the All Blacks, for heaven's sake – around the field in a way usually particular to the men in black.
Best of all Chris Robshaw, the captain subject to such criticism after the losses to Australia and South Africa, led the charge. Moments before the end, Robshaw tackled his opposite number, Richie McCaw, as New Zealand's famed leader tried to bring momentum in a dying cause.
McCaw, in his 116th international compared with Robshaw's 12th, was unable to keep his side going forward. Every query posted over Robshaw this month was answered. We have to remember that he is still in, effectively, only his second season of international rugby, and that in 11 of his 12 games he has had to lead a side fighting their way out of the 2011 World Cup morass. He has carried a huge burden all year, alongside his domestic achievement of leading his club to the top of the English tree, and is still learning.
What, he was asked, was the number one lesson he had learned himself from the past month? "There are too many," he replied, but perhaps he had already answered the question: "It's about knowing we were good enough to go out and challenge these sides." This calendar year England have played the southern-hemisphere trio six times; the return may be no more than a win and a draw but, given England's starting point last January, that is not the worst of records.
Because he is an individual of character, Robshaw will continue to reflect on the decisions made against Wallaby and Springbok in November – to kick at goal or for the corner – games that were lost by six points and one point respectively. But here his England did not put a foot wrong; not many countries have it within them to reduce New Zealand's space so that household names look ordinary, but that is what Robshaw and his colleagues did. They contrived, as one experienced All Blacks watcher observed, exactly what New Zealand themselves had planned to do.
When England looked like getting carried away with the expansion of their game which brought three tries in eight second-half minutes, Robshaw made sure the penalty goals were kicked to ensure no late rally by the opposition. These were easy decisions, particularly since Freddie Burns had just come on for his first cap, was given a 12‑metre chip at the posts and must wonder what the fuss is about at this exalted level.
"Everyone rose to the occasion and wanted to prove a few people wrong," Robshaw, a glint in his eye, said. "No one had given us a chance all week but we were quietly confident that if we stuck to our processes, our systems, we could go out and perform. [Personal criticism] is part of the job. I've got a great team around me, coaches and players, and if you're in that position, we gave the best possible response today."
It is pertinent, too, that the coaching team is callow; they too are learning on the job but there is a unity among management and players which will carry England forward. "We will learn a lot from every game of the autumn series," Robshaw said. "It may be the physicality required, the smartness to manipulate the game, adapting on the pitch. But international rugby is about winning and losing. You can talk a good performance; today we delivered.
"Two years ago at Harlequins we were so close in a lot of games, last year we won the Premiership. This is a new group of players, these things take time but now it's about taking that into the Scotland game [the opening game in February of the Six Nations]."
Robshaw acknowledged the support he has received from outside the England group, from such experienced individuals as Nick Easter, his back-row colleague at Harlequins. But he will listen, too, to the generous comment of Steve Hansen, New Zealand's head coach: "There were," he said, "two teams capable of winning the  World Cup out there." The All Blacks too will be stronger for this blot on their 2012 escutcheon.
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