Chris Robshaw does not come from the Eric Evans school of England captaincy. Evans, who was captain of the 1957 Grand Slam side, was known for his rousing calls to arms, including excerpts from Henry V’s
Agincourt speech, usually reciting his Shakespeare while standing on a chair in the changing room wearing a jockstrap with his England hooker’s shirt tied under his armpits.
Robshaw’s is more of a low key, lead-by-example style reminiscent of John Pullin, the Bristol hooker who led an England side struggling to make an impact in the Five Nations to two remarkable away victories over the Southern Hemisphere superpowers, beating South Africa in Johannesburg in 1972, and New Zealand in Auckland in 1973.
Robshaw has yet to record an away win to match those achieved by Pullin’s unfancied side, or to emulate the Gloucestershire farmer’s dry sense of humour. This included the immortal one-liner, “We may not be any good, but at least we turn up…”, after Pullin’s side lost in Dublin in the wake of the RFU’s refusal to cancel the 1973 fixture against Ireland despite IRA threats.
However, no-one will care whether Robshaw is an extrovert with more gags than Michael McIntyre, or an introvert with a room in a monastic retreat, just as long as England can defy the odds to win the 2015 World Cup.
What he and Stuart Lancaster should do, however, is to ensure that when England’s big figures go public the overall message they want to convey is more joined-up than it appeared to be at Tuesday’s pre-training camp press conference.
While Robshaw was in one room responding to a Sunday newspaper question about the best piece of World Cup advice he had been given, Lancaster was facing a daily newspaper gathering and delivering a different mission statement to that of his captain.
Robshaw said the the best advice he had been given stressed the virtues of winning ugly: “Going to a World Cup is all about winning. It doesn’t matter how you play as long you claw (your way) over the line. A lot of people have mentioned that. Of course you want to play well, but it is about winning games and grinding out games. You look at the tough games in World Cups and generally they’re (won) by a handful of points. Generally, they’re not particularly big scores. It’s about being able to deal with that pressure and getting over the line.”
It was a legitimate argument from Robshaw given that virtually every World Cup final, bar the inaugural tournament in 1987 and its 1999 counterpart, have been almighty arm-wrestles.
Meanwhile, Lancaster was endorsing the uplifting manner in which England had turned around their fortunes in One Day International cricket by playing in swashbuckling style to win the recent series against ODI World Cup finalists, New Zealand.
The England head coach said: “We have got to go into this World Cup with a real positive mindset. I have spoken to the players about England cricket, and the football. The cricketers have found a freedom in playing without fear that has resulted in a hugely positive change of mindset.
“I admire that. I also feel that the footballers have done that after their World Cup. I made the point to the players that our objective is not to wait until after the World Cup, when suddenly everyone might feel that the pressure is off and we can go out and play. We have got to have no fear of failure in the World Cup itself.”
Lancaster qualified this by saying there is a balance to be struck between attack and defence which was more rigorous than that on show in England’s full-tilt 55-35 win over France on the last weekend of the Six Nations. He added that the England tactical template he wanted for the World Cup would be a fusion of the best of what Saracens and Bath produced up to, and including, the Premiership final.
He said: “The final was a real good indicator to me of where we want to be at: marrying the best of those two teams, with the shape and structure of the Bath attack, and the Saracens type of defence allied to the way they played and controlled the game. We have a lot of those qualities in our team, a lot of those players. So, it is about evolving the style.”
Again, there was nothing wrong with Lancaster’s vision, save that those discernible styles have been around for two years at Bath, and many more at Saracens. This begs the question why isn’t the evolution already well underway? The other disconnect was that his message was some way adrift of Robshaw’s willingness to play grindstone rugby from start to finish, if that’s what it takes to win.
There is also a concern that the collective concept of leadership within Lancaster’s camp fails to give England the sort of figurehead captain that Francois Pienaar provided for South Africa in 1995, John Eales for Australia in 1999, Martin Johnson for England in 2003, John Smit for South Africa in 2007, and Richie McCaw for New Zealand in 2011.
While Robshaw was unequivocal that he was fully fit going into the tournament, answering speculation about a persistent shoulder injury by saying, “No, I’m fine,” he was more discursive about the captaincy.
Asked whether he agreed with Johnson’s assertion as England manager ahead of the 2011 World Cup that captaincy was over-rated, Robshaw response had a distinctly communal slant.
“From the outside world you view it as management, captain, players. It’s so much more than that. You have a number of leaders on the pitch who run the attack and defence, and who are just big characters in the squad who drive standards, and lift the guys if something needs to be said. You have 10 or 15 in the squad.”
Ten or 15 ‘leaders’ in a squad sounds to this outsider like a quorum for chaos, but Robshaw and the England coaches see it differently. He explains: “It’s important as a captain (to have other leaders).
“You need to learn how to listen to people and how to get the best for the team, whether it’s something you said or someone else has said. How you put that into place is, hopefully, being able to adapt on your feet and challenge each other.”
Adapting to what is in front of them on the pitch is an area where England can make massive gains because it is not a strong point, but the bit about challenging each other bothers me.
When crucial decisions are being made that are the difference between winning and losing big matches someone with tried-and-tested nous has to take the lead. That is what captaincy is about, and, apart from using a couple of trusted lieutenants as sounding-boards, Robshaw would be wise to kick the communal leadership stuff into the stands and stake out his territory.
That territory includes making sure that he is a key component in deciding the tactical direction that the head coach decides England will take into their World Cup campaign.
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