There are the facts of the matter – Wales beat England by a record margin the last time the two met on Six Nations business at the Millennium Stadium, thereby denying Stuart Lancaster’s side a Grand Slam as well as a championship title, along with anything resembling a peaceful night’s sleep for the best part of a year – and then there is the stuff of fable, much of it concerning the red rose captain Chris Robshaw, who has every incentive in the world to debunk a myth or two on Friday night.
Robshaw has never for a second sought to smother the 2013 experience with a coating of the sweet stuff: that excruciatingly painful 30-3 defeat in Cardiff was the result from hell, and he acknowledges as much. But England did not lose in the way they did because the Harlequins flanker’s leadership skills deserted him in maelstrom, even though this deeply flawed theory has embedded itself in the popular memory. England, outgunned at close quarters and out-manoeuvred in open field, would have lost more heavily still had their skipper not produced one of the more eye-catching displays of individual defiance in recent tournament history.
False perception can be a powerful thing, however. Only this week, the England forwards coach Graham Rowntree made a none-too-oblique reference to Robshaw and his dealings during that game with the referee Steve Walsh, whose officiating bemused everyone in a white shirt and sent the red rose hierarchy into orbit. Yet in mentioning the importance of “the captain dealing with referees” and people “working things out for themselves”, Rowntree told a different tale to the one offered in the days following the game, when he said he “didn’t buy” the “whole streetwise thing”, arguing instead that the real problem at the Millennium Stadium that evening had been a lack of “clean outcomes” from Walsh in the key areas of scrum and breakdown.
The best part of two years on, Robshaw accepts there were lessons to be learnt from Cardiff and insists they have been well and truly absorbed. “My communication with the referee in that game? It was a factor, but not the main factor,” he said. “We understand now that in games of this magnitude, it’s all about clarity: about who can think clearly in the heat of the moment.
“In life, you learn from your experiences, good, bad and ugly. That last trip to Cardiff was one of the ugly ones: it wasn’t a great thing to have on the CV. But we didn’t dip following that match: we built again, continued to evolve and as a result, we’re better now than we were before in terms of our understanding, our cohesion. We’re confident we can bring something to this contest, that it will be a two-sided game.”
Not that he was underplaying the scale of the challenge ahead: indeed, he bracketed the Millennium Stadium experience with the one at Ellis Park in Johannesburg the previous summer, when the Springboks, driven along by the ear-splitting noise generated by the most passionate crowd in South Africa, gave England the mother and father of a hiding in the opening quarter of a brutally tough Test.
“They’re the two places that stick out for me when it comes to external forces - the crowd volume, the hostility from the stands,” Robshaw said. “But it’s that hostility that brings unity to a team: when you go into the lion’s den, so to speak, the excitement of it gives people a lift. We’ve been working hard this week on executing our plays in the face of distraction, of building our focus so that we can go down to Wales and not be shocked by anything.
“You guys are asking a lot of questions about the Welsh, but we can look at last year’s victory over them at Twickenham, when we produced an extremely efficient and dominant performance. How do we replicate that under the different kind of pressure we’ll face in Cardiff? That’s where the clarity comes in, because we want to be the ones who look after the ball under duress.”
For all his heroics in attempting to shore up the English ruins in 2013, Robshaw finished a distant third to two Wales open-side specialists: Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, both of whom beat the Harlequin to a place on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia later that year. If the squad was being picked again this summer, Robshaw would surely be included. All the same, it is a fair bet that Warburton, who starts this week’s game with Tipuric on the bench, will again ask some serious questions in the ball-fetching department – and, quite possibly, charm the referee, Jérôme Garcès of France, with a well-chosen word or two at pivotal moments.
This prospect has not kept Robshaw awake in the small hours, despite the much talked-about historical issues with Walsh, who, as luck would have it, will control England’s last game in this year’s tournament, against France at Twickenham. “Jerome speaks fluent English and he’s a great referee, someone who always communicates clearly and gives honest feedback,” he said, launching a charm offensive of his own. “I don’t think there’ll be any kind of problem. From my perspective, it’s about saying things to him at the right time.”
How the game has changed. At international level these days, it is not enough for a captain to walk the walk as Robshaw does. He also has to talk the talk – and do it better than his opposite number.
The 2013 Millennium mauling - it wasn’t all the referee’s fault
England’s costly defeat at the Millennium Stadium two years ago had something to do with the referee Steve Walsh’s interpretations at scrum and breakdown, which gave the dead-eyed Welsh goal-kicker Leigh Halfpenny regular shots at goal. But this was far from the whole story.
The contest would have been closer than 30-3 had Manu Tuilagi not butchered an early try-scoring opportunity. And the senior red rose players now accept that they started “chasing the game” too quickly, thereby presenting Wales with counter-attacking opportunities that resulted in two ruthlessly executed tries from the wing Alex Cuthbert.
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