When Chris Robshaw led England for the first time, at Murrayfield in the opening match of the 2012 Six Nations, his back division was as green as the proverbial grass. Owen Farrell was making his international debut in the centre, as was Brad Barritt, and while dear old Charlie Hodgson had a fair few caps behind him at outside-half, the impression was of a unit in its infancy. And now, two years down the red-rose road? The back line has grown less experienced, not more.
Robshaw could not conceivably have imagined it in Edinburgh that day, but when he puts his best foot forward against France in Paris this Saturday, he will be surrounded by rookies even rookier than the ones who helped him chisel out that narrow victory over the Scots.Jack Nowell, the right wing from Exeter, has precisely no caps to his name; Luther Burrell, the centre from Northampton, is equally undecorated. Jonny May, the left wing from Gloucester, is a positive greybeard by comparison, having won a single cap in Argentina last summer. The most battle-hardened of the anticipated formation outside the scrum, the Harlequins half-back Danny Care, has made 41 appearances at Test level, but it is well over a year since he started a match for his country.
One way or another, then, Robshaw has some work to do on the leadership front. At least he will not have Thierry Dusautoir staring at him from the far side of halfway. The Toulouse flanker, captain of Les Bleus for much of the recent past and one of world rugby’s top-of-the-bill acts, misses this game through injury – a savage blow to Philippe Saint-André’s side but no great loss as far as the English are concerned.
“Dusautoir really is an incredible player,” acknowledged Robshaw, whose unflashy, industrious style is not dissimilar to that of the great man from the Ivory Coast. “He’s one of the very best and you always have to treat him with respect because he will turn ball over, he’ll carry, he’ll do all the hard work. It’s up to us to make the most of the fact that he’s not playing.”
France will have inexperienced players of their own this weekend, if rumours from their camp in Marcoussis have any basis in fact. Saint-André is said to be looking at a fresh half-back pairing of Jules Plisson, the high-performing Stade Français outside-half, and Jean-Marc Doussain of Toulouse, as well as drafting the South African-born flanker Bernard Le Roux and another Stade Français hot shot, the lock Alexandre Flanquart, into his pack. England will not know vast amounts about these characters, despite two recent rounds of European club rugby.
“We’ve had a lot of interaction with the French teams just lately so we know what to expect to a certain extent. They like their big, heavy packs; they always seem to have very dangerous back lines,” Robshaw said. “But we feel there will be opportunities for us, as long as we can find the intensity we had when we beat them over there in 2012.
“There is more expectation on us now because we’ve been together that much longer, but that’s fine with us. We understand that we’re not in a building stage any more. We’re at a point where we want to win things.”
The captain expects “a very physical encounter, there’s no hiding from it”, and he is uncomfortably aware that the last time England were given such a testing examination at Six Nations level, they failed to pass muster.
That was against Wales in the last game of the 2013 tournament – a match in which the home side reached molten temperatures and burnt Robshaw’s team to a crisp. This match, which will also be played in a febrile atmosphere, represents England’s best chance of closure in respect of that horrible experience in Cardiff.
“It took myself and the guys a while to get over it,” Robshaw acknowledged. “It was a massive defeat for us and it hurt. We’d be lying if we said it didn’t. We’ve looked back at the things that got away from us that day – from myself as captain and from the other leaders as well – and if we find ourselves in that situation again, I hope we’ll deal with it better.”
Jon Callard, the England Saxons coach who suffered some pain of his own during the defeat by the Irish Wolfhounds at Gloucester last weekend, has performed major surgery on his line-up for tomorrow’s meeting with Scotland’s second string in Glasgow.
The Sale full-back Rob Miller, the Bath backs Semesa Rokoduguni and Kyle Eastmond, the Leicester wing Adam Thompstone and the Gloucester scrum-half Dan Robson all start, along with the Harlequins hooker Dave Ward, the Newcastle prop Scott Wilson, the Gloucester lock Elliott Stooke and the Northampton No 8 Sam Dickinson.