Where did it all go right for Chris Robshaw?
Harlequins and England flanker tells Chris Hewett about the new buzz under Lancaster, how captaincy won't alter him and why he won't be analysing his fine form
Conor O'Shea has covered a good deal of ground over the last eight months in managing Harlequins to top-of-the-bill status in the Premiership and acting as kingmaker at international level by backing Stuart Lancaster's candidacy for the England coaching job, but perhaps his most impressive achievement was winning a small battle with Chris Robshaw a little over a week ago – something no one else has managed this season. The red-rose captain wanted to participate in the European Challenge Cup semi-final against Toulon in the south of France, despite a minor leg injury; his boss did not want him doing anything of the sort and dug in his heels. "It can be pretty hard, stopping Chris playing a game of rugby," O'Shea said with a smile.
The Toulon date was a good one for Robshaw to miss, as it turned out: Quins were so comprehensively "galactico'd" by Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Mathieu Bastareaud, Carl Hayman, Joe van Niekerk and the rest, their skipper would not have made a scintilla of difference. It is one thing dominating the vital statistics for England in a Six Nations match, as the 25-year-old loose forward from Surrey did with monotonous regularity during this year's tournament, quite another shepherding a club side to safety against opponents with a playing budget the size of Provence.
Not that such a notion would ever occur to Robshaw, who will be back between the shafts when Quins meet Wasps in this afternoon's league derby at The Stoop and go in search of the victory that will put them within touching distance of the home semi-final that has seemed theirs for the taking since early winter.
"I just want to keep playing, against anyone and everyone, because rugby is a fantastic thrill right now," the captain said after a semi-opposed training session at the club's base on the University of Surrey campus, just outside Guildford. "There was the game with Saracens at a full Twickenham just after Christmas, followed by the Six Nations and all that goes with it, followed by a second game with Sarries in front of a record crowd at Wembley. When it's like this, you don't want it to stop.
"I suppose you expect full houses when England play, but it's amazing to think how club rugby has developed. Two Harlequins-Saracens games, with the best part of 170,000 people through the gates? That's something, isn't it? If anyone is wondering about the potential for the club game in London, they only have to look at those numbers. The game is growing faster than any of us imagined even a couple of years ago."
Robshaw is fiercely proud of Quins' recent progress and can be just a little impatient with those who wonder whether their form is sustainable.
"During the Six Nations," he said, "when I was away with England, I read stuff about us going through a rough patch, just because we came unstuck at Gloucester and drew with Newcastle. Some rough patch. We've lost three league games all season."
His personal success rate is even better. Taking the various cup competitions into account – Heineken, Challenge and Anglo-Welsh – Quins, good as they have been since the start of the campaign, have lost more games as a club than Robshaw has as an individual. He makes a quick calculation: "A couple in the Premiership, a couple in Europe, one with England... I make it five defeats."
All that success and the red-rose captaincy too? Where did it all go right? "It's not the sort of thing you want to analyse, not when you're in the middle of it," he replied.
If Robshaw relishes the big occasion as much as anyone, he is not the sort to save the best of himself for the grand stage. "He'd do what he does for us in front of two men and a dog," said one of the senior coaches at Quins. "We're just glad that when England came calling, they played him in a position that suited him, in a way that allowed him to operate the way he operates here.
"There was some talk initially of them sticking him at No 8. We don't play him there unless it's really necessary: we have Nick Easter, Tom Guest and Chris York as our No 8s, so he's probably fourth of four. As a flanker, blind or open? That's different. Play him on the side of the scrum and he's exceptional, every time. If you're looking for consistency, no one offers more of it than Chris."
Shortly after England's comfortable victory over Ireland in the last round of Six Nations matches – a win that secured them a runners-up finish that flew directly in the face of pre-tournament predictions – the former national coach Brian Ashton argued in this newspaper that Robshaw's contribution had been under-estimated by the many and completely overlooked by the rest. Yet even now, after a period of reflection, there are those who wonder whether the captain is a long-term option in the open-side role. Robshaw hears the whispers, as he heard them before the opening game with Scotland in February, and dismisses them now as he did then.
"As long as I play, I really don't mind where," he said. "Open side? Blind side? I have no preference. When I first broke into senior rugby with Quins, yes, the majority of my rugby was at six. But if you check the records, you'll see I've spent a lot more time at seven than people imagined when all this was flying around before the Six Nations. I've played most of my recent rugby there. Am I an old-school, natural No 7? Probably not. Do I think it matters? Probably not. Look at the Springboks: they don't always play with a pure open side. Nor do the French. And as far as I'm aware, they do all right for themselves results-wise.
"As a back-rower these days, you're going to make a lot of tackles whatever the number on your back. That's great. I like tackling because I like being involved on both sides of the ball. The rest depends on style and approach. In the Six Nations, everyone had a high-class seven and they were all different. Sam Warburton did different things to Ross Rennie of Scotland, who was different to Robert Barbieri of Italy – whois a very good player indeed. These people have their own individual strengths, as do those pushing for their places. It's the same with England. You put together a team on the basis of what works for you."
If Robshaw's industrious performances for England in February and March did not catch the eye and set the tongues wagging à la Warburton, who in fact played precious little rugby during the tournament, or Rennie, who is the Harlequin's polar opposite as a breakaway, he felt completely at home in the Test environment. He owes this, he says, to Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach who offered him the captaincy and gave him two matches, against Scotland and Italy, to prove himself worthy of the honour.
There was such a different feeling about the England camp," recalled Robshaw, who had served time as a fringe player under the Martin Johnson regime. "You just had to walk around the place to feel it. There was this sense that the nation was right behind us – and, as Stuart says, when the England sporting public is really unified behind a team, it's a powerful force. But it was a responsibility, as well as a thrill, knowing that so many people were watching and wanted to see England rugby on the front foot again. Looking back, it was quite a test for everyone."
And now that Lancaster has shed his caretaker's skin and taken on the role full-time? "I think it's great," replied Robshaw, who did not have to make a public declaration in support of the Cumbrian's candidacy – he could have kept his counsel or hedged his bets – but did not hesitate in speaking his mind. "I think it's great for English rugby. He's been around the game in so many different areas: age groups, clubs, Saxons. It was with the Saxons that I first came encountered him and he came across straight away as his own man, someone who could connect with others on a very open basis, who was not interested in trying to be someone he wasn't. He hasn't changed since working with England. His attitude is the same. That's something I admire and I try to take the same approach.
"Am I different as a result of the Six Nations? Have I changed, either as a player or a captain? I don't think I've changed at all. I hope not, anyway. The whole point about captaincy is being who you are – to leave your own mark on things while never for a moment forgetting that what you're doing, you're doing for others. And it's also vital to remember that the people around you want to help. One of the mistakes I made when I first captained Quins was trying to do too much. It took me a little while to understand that there were experienced players in the squad who were on my side and wanted me to succeed. It's the same with England.
"I've grown used to captaining teams now; it's become a part of what I do. But that doesn't make me different. After the Six Nations, the club gave me a week off. I went to Abu Dhabi: beach, pool, sunshine... lovely. When I returned to training, I dropped the very first pass that came my way and took God's amount of stick. That's how it should be. The moment I think I'm above that kind of thing is the moment I'll know I'm getting it wrong."
Chris Robshaw's: Route to the top
Born 4 June 1986, Redhill, Surrey.
Position Back row.
Played for Warlingham, Harlequins, England.
International debut v Argentina, June 2009. Has won six caps.
Accolades Premiership player of the season 2008-09, as voted by fellow players.
Widely praised for an unfaltering work ethic, Robshaw has been a popular choice as England captain. After starting to play rugby aged seven, he excelled in the sport throughout his education and beyond. As captain of Harlequins he has led the team to the top of the Aviva Premiership this season.
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