Kevin Garside: Chris Robshaw travels quietly on a trip that could end in Lions captaincy
Stuart Lancaster learnt to love him, and maybe we are doing so too
Travelling by Tube need not be the catastrophe it was for Roy Hodgson. The answer is to follow the lead set by the oval ball warrior Chris Robshaw, who clearly does not suffer from the same logorrhea that beset England's head coach. There were no anecdotal asides with the blokes on either side, no selection snippets that might, for example, reveal the identity of the Lions skipper in June, or end an international career. No juicy titbits at all, in fact. Why? Because, for the most part, the England rugby captain was asleep.
It is a comfort to know that there are some sporting heroes who can walk through the blizzard of bull dung and vanity without getting wet. Robshaw was travelling on the northbound Piccadilly Line just as the first tranche of Arsenal supporters were making their way to the Emirates for the encounter with Manchester City eight days ago. Episodically, he would nod off between stops. Even in his unconscious state few paid him any attention. It was clear that his fellow travellers had not a Scooby who he was, which it must be said did not seem to bother him one iota. Save for the impressive musculature barely concealed beneath his grey winter coat, there was little to distinguish him from the lads.
Sitting a few seats away, little old me thought he might have a closet Gooner on his hands. Well, who would want to volunteer that to his mates? Seemingly there was nothing for him at Holloway Road and on he rode anonymously toward the Sunday roast. The very next day at a gala dinner in London an august body of sports scribblers honoured Robshaw with the Pat Marshall Memorial Award for 2012, the highest accolade that the Rugby Writers' Club can bestow upon a player. From the shadows to centre stage, a 24-hour snapshot that pretty much sums up this quiet man of English rugby, a reluctant hero who goes about his business sans fuss or ego.
Next week the Six Nations pageant is upon us once more, with Robshaw leading England against the auld enemy at Twickenham. The contest with Scotland is heightened by the proximity of a Lions tour, the prospect of which did not feature in his wildest fantasies a year ago when Stuart Lancaster was handed the mop and bucket to clean up the mess that was England's World Cup campaign. The armband might have gone to Tom Wood, but a foot injury forced him out of the Murrayfield encounter and it was to Robshaw that Lancaster turned, low maintenance leadership on and off the turf.
Robshaw was no secret. He earned domestic plaudits and inclusion around the England fringes at Pennyhill Park, but one cap against Argentina south of the equator in 2009 was as far as it went. Maybe his brand of old-fashioned grunt and love of attrition did not chime with new thinking in a rapidly changing game seeking ways to speed up the action and the movement of the ball. Lions coach Warren Gatland condemned him to the neverland of a "six-and-a-half shirt", suggesting he is neither this nor that in his migration across the back row. But Lancaster learnt to love him during their time together with the England Saxons, and after that exhilarating thrash against New Zealand in November, maybe we are too.
It has been a slow burn. Lancaster as well as Robshaw were fair game going into the autumn internationals after the shock treatment that was the winless tour to South Africa in June. A meaningless victory over Fiji appeared even more hollow following defeat to an Australian team run ragged by the French seven days earlier. That the man of the match, Michael Hooper, happened to be standing in for that other towering No 7 David Pocock was the kind of negative twist that can usher a bloke out of a job. Hooper was equally green, but he did not have to deal with the scrutiny invited by captaincy.
The judgment to kick instead of twist in the closing minutes of the next encounter against South Africa did not help. Game, courageous, fine fellow but not the man to get England across the line against elite opposition went the song. Lancaster had a decision to make against New Zealand. He made two. He stuck with Robshaw and started with Owen Farrell at 10. His bravery was rewarded with one of the great performances by an England team at Twickenham against a side many believed to be the best to represent New Zealand. The All Blacks were All Blacked. And at the heart of the piece was Robshaw, eclipsing the great claw-hammer himself, Richie McCaw.
Asked by a child on the Fifa stage at the Ballon d'Or awards what it took to be a great player, Cristiano Ronaldo replied: "Work hard and be humble." Ronaldo kept one half of the bargain. Robshaw marches on true to both principles and, who knows, towards the Lions captaincy, perhaps?
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