Six Nations: Chris Robshaw stands tall in test to become Lions' leading man
There is no greater test of nerve than a Grand Glam decider at the Millennium Stadium. England lost, but this was heroic failure for captain Chris Robshaw, an unfailing bulwark when all around him were disintegrating. He demonstrated even in defeat a dependability of character that enhances his chances of carrying Warren Gatland's vote when deciding the Lions captaincy.
In terms of trench warfare there is little notionally to separate Robshaw and the man who started the Six Nations as the favourite to captain the Lions, Sam Warburton. Though how Warburton thought he might enhance his credentials to lead in Australia by withdrawing his candidacy for the domestic role yesterday is not clear – perhaps he has made it easier for Gatland to chose his man Down Under.
If this were an audition, Robshaw fulfilled the first component by demonstrating his value on the pitch, invariably the first line of defence all over the turf, covering prodigious ground to make the hits. "Amazing", "immense" were the preferred adjectives used by Welsh wizard of yore, Jonathan Davies, in describing Robshaw in a first half of unremitting intensity.
A year ago Warburton was the man of the match in the fixture, and led Wales to the Grand Slam. Robshaw was in his infancy as an international player and was learning the ropes with an armband on his sleeve. How he has grown into both roles, an uncomplicated giver of everything. Team-mates learn to respect a man quickly following a leader like him.
His stats were impressive, making twice as many carries and tackles as Warburton in the opening period, but that might be because Wales crushed the English scrum, forcing the England captain to respond to Welsh impetus rather than the reverse. Even when he was under the cosh in the autumn, criticised for his decision to kick for goal at the death when losing by four points to South Africa, his coach at Harlequins Conor O'Shea, rang to remind him that he was the best player on the pitch by a mile.
This might have been a day when England engineered the kind of tour de force that swamped the All Blacks. But for all their ferocious efficiency and winning pedigree, New Zealand cannot draw upon the emotional zeal that Wales bring to a match against the old enemy. Even carrying a dose of norovirus Wales would have had too much for England yesterday.
Robshaw's first contribution was to go down on bended knee to tie a shoelace. The pre-match huddle had to wait for him to convene it. Perhaps he was seeking to inject an element of the mundane into the pantomime of flames and arias. Why the need to corrupt the Welsh national anthem, one of the great moments in sport, with the whistles and bells of stage management?
Robshaw's low centre of gravity and big engine is perfectly suited to the scavenging job that attaches to the No.7 shirt, and particularly useful in resisting the "welcome to Wales" hits he knew were coming. The game was not a minute old when Robshaw was smashed to the dirt by 18 and a half stone of Welsh iron called Ian Evans, who spoke beforehand of his desire to deny England the Grand Slam.
For the next 10 minutes as Wales heaved all over the England line the England captain was at the heart of the defensive effort, piling into tackle after tackle. The dam burst in the 10th minute, Ben Youngs' failure to roll away in the tackle giving Leigh Halfpenny the chance to slot Wales into the lead.
It rarely let up thereafter, Wales bringing to bear an indefatigable desire to lower the English standard. If the first half was Robshaw's, Warburton grew in influence as the Welsh upped the ante in the second, blasting holes in the English line.
The night belonged to Wales, a team that has rediscovered itself in this championship after the first-half blitz suffered against the Irish on the opening day. Robshaw is not a miracle worker. He cannot be held responsible for the superiority of opponents with greater experience and, in key areas, deeper talent. All he can do is stand tall. He did that all right.
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