No clowning around for Robshaw as Harlequins get serious for Europe
The England captain says his side are aiming for the Heineken Cup, writes DONALD MCRAE
DOWN A dingy corridor, and in a small room littered with dirty kit and muddy boots, the England captain sits on a hard wooden bench with a relaxed grin. The gritty backdrop of a cramped dressing room at his club’s training ground suits Chris Robshaw far more than some swanky television studio or corporate sponsor event. Over the last year, leading both England and Harlequins, the Premiership champions, Robshaw has seen his share of glamorous locations. Winning the English league’s player of the season in May also guaranteed his appearance in a tuxedo and dress shirt – but Robshaw looks happiest in this stark setting.
It’s still far from easy and, settling down for a break on another long day at Harlequins’ base at the University of Surrey in Guildford, Robshaw seems briefly weary. He might still be smiling but he leans his head against the brick wall and, in that moment, it’s possible to see how much rugby takes out of its leading performers. Robshaw is in the midst of a draining roll of club matches – with a run of tough Premiership games leading to the start of the even more demanding Heineken Cup this weekend as Harlequins begin a serious tilt at European glory at home to Biarritz.
Yet all this is just a prelude to the most brutally competitive of all months when, in November, England play successive internationals against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Stuart Lancaster, England’s coach, suggested recently that he has not decided on his captain while also acknowledging Dylan Hartley’s rival claims. All this should be enough to make Robshaw need a quiet lie-down in a darkened dressing room but, instead, he sits up straighter.
“It adds to the excitement,” he says cheerfully. Robshaw even laughs when asked if he was surprised by the leadership debate – for it would be a real shock if, after a successful year in tandem as England’s new coach and captain, Lancaster should jettison Robshaw.
“I didn’t hear about it until one of the guys here told me about it,” Robshaw says, jerking his thumb down the passage to the distant sounds of his Quins team-mates. “I’ve loved captaining my country and it’s a huge honour but it’s only ever been on a tournament-by- tournament, and even game-by-game, basis. I presume it will continue in that vein. Whether it’s myself or someone else we will get told a week before a tournament or a series of internationals that we’re captain. There’s still so much rugby to be played this month.”
The only logical reason for Lancaster delaying confirmation of Robshaw’s appointment is the possibility that the flanker could yet be injured – just as he was in the second Test against South Africa in the summer.
However, Robshaw is still a comparative international novice. He was appointed England’s captain at the start of this year after winning just one cap. Lancaster was similarly unproven as a coach in the Test arena but, together, they lifted England out of the moribund chaos that had characterised their World Cup this time last year. Robshaw is too pragmatic to expect his re-appointment as captain to be a formality. But, as his expression glows and his voice becomes impassioned, he does not sound like a leader about to be replaced.
“We’ve won games away in the Six Nations and we got a draw in South Africa. From those experiences we can work out how to take this structure to a new level. Things are now different to the start of the year. Back then some guys were on zero caps, or one cap, and we’ve played eight Tests since then. We’ve got more experience and that’s starting to show.”
Robshaw took charge of Harlequins in even more onerous circumstances. He became club captain in 2010 when the club was still reeling from their shameful immersion in the Bloodgate saga – after their former coach Dean Richards engineered a fake blood replacement during a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster.
“We had a lot of drama at the club,” Robshaw remembers. “We like to say and even think that it didn’t affect us – but it did. We didn’t win a game in the Heineken the following season but it was great for the squad to rebuild and last year we won the Amlin Cup. I really think that was a turning point and it drove us to become Premiership champions this year. It bound us together and washed away all the bad stuff.”
Just as Robshaw has gelled so well with Lancaster at England, he has enjoyed an especially productive relationship with Conor O’Shea – who replaced the disgraced Richards in 2010. “Stuart and Conor are very similar. They’re deep thinkers and they both have a very systematic and positive approach. They have the belief to back us to go out there and play rugby. Conor’s probably the most positive man I’ve ever met. That rubs off on the players as we look towards the Heineken.
“Last season, first up, we played Toulouse and we were probably a bit in awe of them. It was a big game at their place but we ground out a win. But then we went over to Ireland for the last game and the rain came down at Connacht.
“They hadn’t won a match the whole tournament and we just needed to win to reach the quarters. But they beat us. It was hard to take but would we have won the Premiership then?
“During the Heineken quarters we had a weekend off and that helped get a little freshness back into the legs. Still, this year, we want to do special things in both competitions – and we go back to Connacht for our second match.”
Harlequins should beat Connacht this time and their group is made considerably easier by the presence of the inexperienced Italian club Zebre. But is it possible for an English team to win the Premiership and the Heineken Cup in the same season? “I’m sure it is,” Robshaw says. “You need a great squad and to be lucky with injuries. The Heineken Cup is special because it’s so tough to win.
“That’s why you have to be so impressed when you look at what Leinster have done – winning it three times in four years. People say they have an advantage because they can concentrate on the Heineken but I love the intensity and competitiveness of our league.”
The toll on Robshaw’s body is obvious but, typically, he just grins again as he considers the constant battering he endures. “I’m 26 now and the old body feels OK. The physios are good and I bought one of those machines which ices and compresses at the same time. So if you’ve had a knock or are a bit stiff or swollen you put the machine on at night. And if you’ve turned an ankle it’s like putting on a big blow-up sock.”
Robshaw raises a wry eyebrow when asked what his girlfriend makes of his sexy night-time rituals? “Yeah, it goes down really well with Camilla! But she doesn’t mind. We met at a rugby dinner almost two years ago and she is half-Kiwi, half-Welsh. So she likes rugby.”
He is even more indebted to his mother, Patricia, for Robshaw lost his dad when he was only five. His father, Alan, was an architect and just 40 when he died after a heart attack.
“It’s hard to tell how it affected me,” Robshaw says, “because you don’t know how you would’ve turned out if life had been different. You imagine so many different scenarios. But my mum has been brilliant at raising me and my two brothers and giving us so many opportunities. She’s sacrificed a lot.
“Mum and her sister run two nursing homes – and they worked really hard so mum could pay for my education at Millfield because she knew I needed extra help with my dyslexia and that I’d have so many chances to do well at sport there. And, of course, that’s where I got picked up by Harlequins. So I owe a lot to mum.”
Harlequins, in turn, owe much to Robshaw – as, surely, England will over the next few years. In the barren setting of an empty dressing room there is no need for Robshaw to make any grandstanding speech.
Instead he offers one last quiet but telling reminder of the philosophy that underpins his leadership.
“When I was given the captaincy at Quins I was quite young and thought I had to do everything. I know differently now. Every now and then you have to shout and have the hard chats but I understand the job better than ever.
“The starting point is to go out there and personally justify why you should be in the team by playing well and doing everything you’ve been asked. To show that willingness and commitment is all that really matters. The rest will follow.”