Six Nations: 'It's hard, but you learn the most from mistakes' - Chris Robshaw
Chris Robshaw is suddenly favourite to lead the Lions. He tells Chris Hewett how England's chastening autumn internationals made him a better player
When Chris Robshaw says he spends precisely none of his waking hours mulling over his chances of leading the British and Irish Lions on their tour of Australia later this year, it is the easiest thing in the world to believe him: statistics never tell the full story behind a game of rugby, but the England skipper's numbers match on match – his high tackle count, his impressive yardage on the carry, the relentlessness of his involvement at the breakdown – suggest he has neither the time nor the energy to waste on distractions of any kind.
There is, however, a hell of a lot of Lions-driven chatter out there, and some of it is beginning to seep into his consciousness. "I know there are bits and bobs going on," said the Harlequins flanker on being reminded that he was now an across-the-board bookmakers' favourite for the ultimate captaincy honour. "But my response now is the same as when I was first asked about this at the Premiership launch back in August. If you deserve to be on the plane because you're playing well for club and country, you probably will be. Everything else takes care of itself."
True enough, but the fact is that Robshaw himself is taking care of most of the things that matter. At the start of the campaign, his immediate family would have hesitated before sticking him in a Lions Test line-up on the open side of the scrum ahead of Sam Warburton, the Wales captain. Warburton was rated by most rugby folk as the best No 7 in Europe, and almost as many could be heard wondering whether Robshaw was a No 7 at all. His work in the position was rarely denigrated, still less dismissed out of hand, but his suitability for the breakaway role was routinely questioned. "He's a six and a half," people said. "A good player, but neither fish nor fowl."
Try as he might to ignore the charge, he found it next to impossible – not least because Warren Gatland, the head coach of the Lions, had his own reservations about Robshaw's open-side style and aired them in public. But that was back in November, when the skipper found himself firefighting a blaze of criticism sparked by the losses to Australia and South Africa. Since then, he has led his country to a record-breaking victory over New Zealand, the world champions, and bagged three from three in the Six Nations, with Italy to come this weekend – as well as guiding Quins to a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup.
"That was the first time in my England career I'd found myself in a dark, negative place," he said, reflecting on the aftermath of the Springbok defeat (far right), when his decision-making at the back end of a one-point failure left him at the mercy of a rugby commentariat with the scent of blood in its nostrils. "You see that kind of thing happening in other sports, but you don't realise how it feels until you experience it yourself. It's hard. But you learn best from your mistakes."
According to Robshaw, he has also learnt from the best. Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain and one of the finest flankers ever to play the game, and Jean de Villiers, the tough-as-old-boots centre who currently leads South Africa, left an impression on him. "The way they speak to the referee, they way they deal with the public after a game and talk to the media… when you go up against them, it's obvious that they know what they're doing."
But the learning curve has led away from rugby, too. Andrew Strauss, the outstanding captain of the England cricket team who passed the flame to Alastair Cook on retirement last summer, spoke to Robshaw about the perils of doing too much as a captain, of spreading the effort too thinly. In addition, the flanker has tried his hand at stand-up comedy and taken the odd acting lesson in an effort to strengthen his grasp of leadership. "Those were things laid on for the Quins squad," he said. "The idea was to help us improve our body language and make us better able to express ourselves. Doing different things that are out of your comfort zone… it keeps your mind ticking over."
A little over a year ago, when the red-rose coach, Stuart Lancaster, appointed Robshaw to the captaincy, there was a sharp intake of breath around Twickenham. A skipper with one solitary cap to his name? Could this be wise? The answer to that one has become transparently clear in the months since, but did Robshaw doubt himself at the time?
"The thing was, that England side was very inexperienced," he said. "When I was first asked to captain Quins, the situation was different. It was then that I found myself looking at guys who were 10 years older than I was, who had played 30-plus times for their country, and wondering: 'Are they going to listen to someone like me?' Nick Easter [the England No 8 at the last World Cup] was the one who told me I should be myself and do it my way, and that people were there to help. That's how I've approached it. First and foremost you have to earn your shirt and justify your selection. Then, you just go out and do it."
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