The two biggest and most costly disasters of Robshaw’s recently curtailed 42-cap tenure as England captain came against the Welsh. Namely, their calamitous 2015 World Cup pool loss at Twickenham five months ago, and the Red Rose 2013 Grand Slam no-show in Cardiff when they were swamped 30-3 by Gatland’s rampant side.
If the 28-25 World Cup loss to Wales, which paved the way for England’s pool exit, was the defeat that reverberated most – with Robshaw heavily criticised for his decision to forsake a late penalty to secure a draw – the 2013 Grand Slam game in Cardiff came a close second.
Those defeats have not only cost English rugby dearly in terms of international prestige, they also hurt Robshaw deeply as an individual.
Despite winning 25 of his Tests as captain, they have deprived him of the privilege of leading his country – with Eddie Jones replacing him with Dylan Hartley – and also cost the Harlequins flanker the kudos of being England’s first Grand Slam captain since Martin Johnson in 2003. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was passed over by the Lions selectors for the 2013 tour of Australia.
Even so, the prospect of encountering a ranting, raving, mad-for-revenge Robshaw at England’s training camp in Bath this week was unlikely, because he has always been stalwart and undemonstrative in a typically Anglo-Saxon way.
Robshaw did not flinch or look for excuses when the World Cup flak was at its heaviest, and he does not do so now. However, despite saying he is more relaxed now he is a foot-soldier rather than captain, the scars are there.
He glosses over his lofted scoring pass to put Anthony Watson in for the first of England’s tries against Ireland on their first outing at Twickenham since the World Cup, then reveals that last weekend felt strange despite the 21-10 victory.
“What had happened there the last couple of times made it a bit eerie when we first got there.
“But as soon as we got on the pitch it was Twickenham and great to be back. You could remember what it was all about and what it represents.”
Did he miss the walk from the bus into the stadium? “It’s fantastic to see all the fans when you get off the bus. You probably can’t get that atmosphere of what it was like in the World Cup because the number of people then was phenomenal. Trying to compare it is tough…we’ve got a good thing going, and when things are going well and you’re winning it’s a good place to be.
“We have had some pretty heavy defeats against Wales but we have also had some great wins against them. I’m sure we will look at the (World Cup) game and look at areas where we got exploited, their strengths and weaknesses. We will be smart in our approach and we will look for areas that we can hopefully exploit.”
Robshaw insists he will not be delving into his personal hurt-locker ahead of the game. “As soon as you go off page with your (own) agenda – with that kind of focus and vendetta – then you lose that clarity in your mind. When you play these types of games you might only get one chance, whether it is early on or at the end, and if your thoughts are clouded with the past history of what’s happened, and that type of pain, it can affect you.”
He says the World Cup spectre still casts a shadow. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t tough. There was probably a bit of a backlash, and you look at the people who helped you through. It comes down to loved ones, family and team-mates who were hugely important to me throughout that period.”
Robshaw adds that life goes on, captain or not: “I am in a good place now.
“I am enjoying it and looking forward to going back out to Twickenham next week.
“There is less for you to focus on, fewer meetings to go to and less for you to worry about –
getting the boys going if they are slightly off, and stuff like that.
“From a selfish point of view, you can focus on yourself and do the extras you need to do.
“You can go and play cards without worrying too much about anything else.”
He is upbeat, too, about the new regime under Jones. “No matter what set-up you are in, a new coach freshens things up. They bring new ideas and training is slightly different…(they are) trying to develop everyone, and the three of them (Jones, Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard) have done that extremely well, developing individuals and making everyone better.
“It is good to see.
“But I’m not going to compare the two regimes. Eddie’s come in and put his mark on it and we are moving around a bit more. The players are enjoying it.
“You’re always going to get comparisons. There were comparisons when Stuart first came in between Johnno (Martin Johnson) and Stuart. It’s probably the nature of how it works.” He has been in touch with Lancaster, but not regularly. “A little bit, not too much. In sport you have to continue to move forward and our alliances are with Eddie now, aren’t they? Eddie has come in and done a fantastic job so far.”
With Wales centre Jamie Roberts now sharing the same changing room with Robshaw at Harlequins, and living nearby in Wandsworth, Robshaw says the World Cup has cropped up in conversation. “I try and stay away from the World Cup topic with him – although he’s probably brought it up a bit!
“We live 300 metres from each other and share lifts to training. At the moment it is about your national identity and representing your country. When we go back to the club it will be club matters and put to bed. He has been playing pretty well for Wales, their form player.”
Ask Robshaw if England are fitter now than they were at the World Cup, and he says: “It is about doing the fitness work but having clarity so that when you get in those high pressure situations – those tough moments and must-take lineouts – you are good enough, are thinking clearly, and the drills are correct and executed under pressure.
“The World Cup will always be a part of me and a lot of the guys here.
“You cannot let it hang over you too much. This is a new tournament, an exciting one…but the World Cup will always be a part of you.”
While a win against Wales might not bring atonement, for Robshaw and his Red Rose mates it would be the next best thing.
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