Six Nations 2015: Tunnel vision earns Chris Robshaw a chance to take on the world

Head coach Stuart Lancaster says England have 'grown'

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Stuart Lancaster is not a great one for bucking the system – quite the opposite, for the England coach is just about as methodical and process-driven as they come – but there was a part of him that responded warmly to the way his long-term captain, Chris Robshaw, stared officialdom squarely in the face and refused to budge in the minutes before the Six Nations kick-off against Wales last Friday night.

“We’ve grown as a group,” Lancaster said. What he meant was that, three years into his stewardship, the red-rose team is now big and ugly enough to look after itself.

The coach also went some way to confirming that the Harlequins flanker would lead the side at the World Cup, which begins in September. This had more to do with Robshaw’s tireless performance on the field – yet again, what might be called the captain’s vital statistics were eye-wateringly good – than with his square-jawed insistence on staying in the Millennium Stadium tunnel until Wales showed signs of emerging from their dressing room, thereby stealing some of the home team’s theatrical thunder. Still, it all adds up.

Asked whether Robshaw would have dared make such a Martin Johnson-esque stand had a similar situation arisen in Scotland in 2012 – the back-rower’s first game as captain, as well as Lancaster’s first in charge – the coach admitted that on balance, it would probably have been a non-starter.

“It wouldn’t have been a decision I’d have encouraged him to take, under the circumstances at that point,” he said. “You take time to find your feet at this level, but now we’ve been to South Africa and been to New Zealand and have a lot of players in the changing room who have experienced big matches, the investment of the last two or three years is beginning to have its effect.

“There’s a fine line between cussedness and arrogance. I’d hate to think we come across as an arrogant team because I don’t think we are, but you want to show what you’re about as a group. I think Friday night was a sign of a side growing in confidence.”

Stuart Lancaster during training on Monday

Pressed on the World Cup captaincy issue, Lancaster was his usual measured self. “I sit and watch games on a weekly basis and see players get injured,” he remarked.

“Things happen that are completely outside of a coach’s control. And it’s not a slight on Chris to say we have good back-row players who are desperate for an opportunity. James Haskell could probably do as well at No 7 as he did at No 6 in Cardiff; Calum Clark [the uncapped Northampton flanker] comes into camp week in and week out and has been exceptional, yet he goes home every Tuesday night before a Test.

“But Chris has been excellent and we need to make sure we continue to back him. We certainly will in this Six Nations and, fingers crossed, he’ll continue to be fit and available. The fundamental thing behind leadership in rugby is that everyone has confidence in your ability as a player.

“The captain’s place in the team has to be secure, and Chris earns that security on a weekly basis by continually being at the top of the list in terms of work rate. It would take a big change of heart now to go away from the direction we’ve been heading with him.”

England are preparing for this weekend’s meeting with Italy at Twickenham with a clean bill of health from Cardiff – something the poor old Azzurri cannot even begin to emulate, having lost the centre Michele Campagnaro and the flanker Alessandro Zanni to nasty knee ligament injuries suffered during their defeat by Ireland last Saturday. The indications are  that Lancaster will keep faith with his existing starting line-up, while considering promoting the Leicester second-rower Geoff Parling to the bench as specialist engine room cover.

However, there is no prospect of two first-choice forwards from Northampton, the lock Courtney Lawes and the loose forward Tom Wood, recovering from injury in time to regain match fitness ahead of the big game with Ireland in Dublin on 1 March. Far more worryingly, there is growing concern over the state of David Wilson’s neck.

After the Bath prop was ruled out of the Wales game with a “nerve impingement”, it transpired yesterday that he had lost strength in his right arm. This bulletin was uncomfortably reminiscent of that surrounding England’s senior tight-head specialist, Dan Cole, this time last year. Cole ended up going under the knife and missed eight months of rugby.

“We’re still optimistic it’s not a long-term problem, but then, I was optimistic Davey would play in Wales, wasn’t I?” Lancaster said. “There’s not an exact science here. Sometimes, these things can take two weeks; sometimes, they take longer. It’s hard to tell.”




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