Robshaw's call leaves his side in a tight corner
Skipper's moment of indecision may return to haunt him if England lose heavily to All Blacks
Suddenly, the public perception of Chris Robshaw – and, indeed, of the coach who made an England captain of him, Stuart Lancaster – is that they learnt all they know about firm leadership and clear-minded decision-making while studying at the King Lear Academy of Fine Judgement. Never mind that the national team, still in the early stages of its development, lost by a miserable point (16-15) against the second best side in world rugby, and that many of the calls made against the Springboks were as sound as a bell. Robshaw and Lancaster are deep in clanger territory.
In this kind of atmosphere, perceived horrors start feeding on themselves and grow bigger by the day. Ask Brian Ashton, railroaded out of the England coaching job in the spring of 2008 for reasons that seemed daft at the time and look seriously stupid now. Ask Steve Borthwick, ditched as captain two years later in one of the more spineless acts of selection in living memory, on grounds never satisfactorily explained by the red-rose hierarchy. In both cases, a frenzy whipped up by the media became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Lancaster and Robshaw find themselves on the wrong end of an All Black shellacking this coming weekend, they will have an awful lot of fire-fighting ahead of them.
A single-point defeat against opponents shorn of a handful of big-name players but armed with the cleverest of strategists in Ruan Pienaar – "He never grows tired of doing the right thing," said Andy Farrell, the England assistant coach, admiringly – and a lock forward in Eben Etzebeth who may, in the fullness of time, be bracketed with Martin Johnson and John Eales as a modern second-row great, is hardly cause for recourse to the Samaritans. But the manner of the game's denouement, hard on the heels of the tactical muddle against the Wallabies seven days previously, started a fresh landslide of controversy.
Was Robshaw right or wrong to opt for a three-point penalty shot, with his side four points behind and only a couple of minutes left on the clock? Should he have slipped into "seize the moment" mode and gone to the corner in search of a match-winning try? Put like that, the decision was a no-brainer. But as Lancaster argued post-match, it was not a call of the "black and white" variety. There were logical arguments either way, as two of the central figures in the 2003 World Cup-winning vintage – Sir Clive Woodward and Will Greenwood – demonstrated in the course of a heated discussion in the luxury of the broadcasting booth.
Against the Wallabies, the captain repeatedly went for the corners because he believed the Australian forwards would buckle, crack and eventually snap under the pressure of England's mauling game. As Springbok packs snap about as often as Table Mountain, his initial instinct here was to bag the available points as quickly as possible, claim the restart kick with a minimum of fuss and go through the phases one last time in the hope of forcing another penalty or establishing a drop-goal position. Fair enough.
Had the Harlequins flanker gone in search of the try, he would have been equally justified. Even had the Boks burgled the line-out – a distinct possibility, on the evidence of their success in this area over the previous 77 minutes – they could only have cleared to touch and given England another shot. The Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer said that on balance, he was "relieved" when Robshaw called for the kick, but agreed it was an "either-or".
What was not justified was any prolonged delay between the awarding of the penalty (for an illegal tackle by Marcell Coetzee on the outstanding Geoff Parling) and the goaling of it. Sadly, this was precisely what occurred. The gap between Robshaw signalling for the sticks and Owen Farrell sticking the ball between them was almost exactly a minute – a good 30 seconds longer than necessary and extremely costly in the context of the moment. Farrell appeared to disagree with the captain's decision, thereby prompting a conference his team could ill afford.
When it became clear that he had been overruled and would aim for the posts as instructed, there was a chorus of booing from the stands – something that may have persuaded Robshaw, still raw from the criticism thrown at him after the Australia defeat, to ask the referee if he could change his call, thereby wasting a few more precious seconds. Or was it that he looked at the clock again, saw how much time the original discussion had eaten up and concluded that a kick to the corner was now the better option? If so, Robshaw was thinking with considerable clarity. Only he knows the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, the impression he left was of a skipper not quite sure of his own indecision.
Which was something of a shame, for across the piece, Robshaw delivered far more against an extremely useful Springbok loose trio than he had against the free-roaming Michael Hooper on Australia day. He turned over possession, tackled his weight and completed his close-quarter passes with precision while making most of the right tactical choices. Together with Parling, who played his best game in an England shirt, he prospered against the toughest opponents in the business.
So did the four forwards wisely drafted in by Lancaster – especially Joe Launchbury, the young Wasps lock on his first Test start, and the returning prop Alex Corbisiero, who brought all his scrummaging skills to bear on the powerful Jannie du Plessis at the set-piece.
But for a freak try at the start of the second half – a pinball production that started with Juandre Kruger's backwards fumble and ended with Willem Alberts capitalising on a deflection off Ben Morgan – the last two minutes would not have unfolded as they did. By way of rubbing an ocean's worth of salt in English wounds, it was an open question whether the referee, Nigel Owens, should have consulted the television match official Jim Yuille before awarding the score.
There was no doubting the correctness of Yuille's ruling in favour of the Boks, but there was plenty of doubt as to whether the dog's breakfast protocols surrounding TMO referrals permitted Owens, who had not the faintest idea what had happened in the chaotic build-up to the score, to ask for help. Would he have awarded it without Yuille's advice? Maybe, maybe not.
Lancaster was in no mood to reflect on it. With the All Blacks looming large there were more urgent things occupying his mind, including fitness concerns over Corbisiero and the outside-half Toby Flood, which last night led him to call in the Gloucester pair of Nick Wood and Freddie Burns as cover, along with the Bath wing Tom Biggs for the struggling Ugo Monye. There was also the poor form of Chris Ashton and the ongoing lack of midfield creativity to consider. Plus,of course, the severe criticism being levelled at his captain. Problems, problems.
England – Penalties: Farrell 3, Flood 2. South Africa – Try: Alberts. Conversion: Lambie. Penalties: Lambie 3.
England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester).
Replacements: O Farrell (Saracens) for Flood 6-10 and 45; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Corbisiero 53; J Haskell (Wasps) for Wood 53; D Care (Harlequins) for B Youngs 67; D Paice (London Irish) for T Youngs 67; M Botha (Saracens) for Launchbury (72); D Wilson (Bath) for Cole 75.
South Africa: Z Kirchner (Blue Bulls); J P Pietersen (Kwazulu-Natal), J De Jongh (Western Province), J De Villiers (Western Province, capt), F Hougaard (Western Province); P Lambie (Kwazulu-Natal), R Pienaar (Ulster); G Steenkamp (Toulouse), A Strauss (Free State), J Du Plessis (Kwazulu-Natal), E Etzebeth (Western Province), J Kruger (Blue Bulls), W Alberts (Kwazulu-Natal), F Louw (Bath), D Vermeulen (Western Province).
Replacements: P Cilliers (Western Province) for Du Plessis h-t; M Coetzee (Kwazulu-Natal) for Alberts 56; H Van der Merwe (Leinster) for Steenkamp 61; F Van der Merwe (Blue Bulls) for Etzebeth 69; S Brits (Saracens) for Strauss 74.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Last-chance confusion: Decisions, decisions a captain's lot
When England won a kickable penalty at 16-12 with three minutes to play, Chris Robshaw immediately pointed to the posts. Kicker Owen Farrell was clearly vexed with the decision and questioned his captain's call. "Yes, posts!" Robshaw shouted back. As Farrell prepared to kick and the Twickenham crowd started to boo, Robshaw had second thoughts.
"How long left?" he asked referee Nigel Owens. "Two minutes." "Can we change the call?" "No, you may not – not allowed," said Owens, correctly ruling that once a team has elected to shoot for goal they must make the attempt.
Sir Clive Woodward says that on-field decisions of the kind facing Chris Robshaw should be pre-planned off the field, in team meetings ahead of a game. In reality, that rarely happens. Captains either make the call alone or, in the case of a long-distance shot, in consultation with the kicker, who knows his own range. Robshaw and Owen Farrell did this earlier in Saturday's match, but the last kick did not require discussion.
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