Conor O’Shea’s reputation for innovation has never been restricted to the pacey, penetrative brand of rugby he enjoys. Last season, for instance, Harlequins’ director of rugby ventured outside of the box to organise an alien extra-curricular activity for his leadership group – Chris Robshaw among them.
It involved a lesson in performance from a professional actor and aimed to cultivate the communication and body language of senior players. A turbulent campaign now behind him, Robshaw reflects on that experiment with a generous grin – genuinely of the opinion it was beneficial.
It clearly requires more than a brief tutorial to master the art of improvisation, though. When asked to recall everything about the Lions squad unveiling on Tuesday, April 30 – the initial pain of omission, the Sky circus speeding out of Surrey Sports Park, staunch subsequent support of his teammates – a long pause betrays lingering rawness.
“It’s tough as a sportsman because you naturally want to be part of things,” Robshaw eventually offers. “Especially when [the Lions] is a team you have grown up watching.
“[The support] showed how close-knit we are at Harlequins. When one of us is affected by something – whether that is selection, family, loved ones – the others respond. Everyone knows rugby players enjoy a bit of banter but whenever anything happens that might affect our mates, we rally round and make sure it’s OK.”
O’Shea’s infectious affability means unity will be at Harlequins’ core for a while to come; Robshaw even cites Junior World Championship-winning skipper Jack Clifford as personification of a fruitful future. However, that Irish spikiness – occasionally compelling O’Shea to slam refereeing standards – has been just as crucial to the accumulation of three major trophies and an Aviva A League title since 2011.
A week ago, on announcing the contract extension that will keep Robshaw at the Twickenham Stoop until at least the summer of 2016, those two traits shone through. “Chris is not just an incredible rugby player,” O’Shea said, abrasively loyal as ever. “He is one of the great leaders of the modern game.”
Despite the excruciating indecision in the dying seconds of England’s loss to the Springboks in November, few would dare to disagree. Sheer bloody-mindedness and old-fashioned industry made Robshaw Stuart Lancaster’s stand-out in a string of Tests, not least the 38-21 dismantling of New Zealand to start Richie McCaw’s six-month sabbatical on a sour note.
Battling in tandem with Tom Wood in the dark trenches of the tackle area, he helped to carve out a Six Nations Grand Slam chance, too. Although never spectacular, his displays were supremely solid, shirking absolutely nothing. Certainly, James Haskell’s smirking suggestion that the BBC should re-name their man-of-the-match trophy as “the Chris Robshaw award” seemed pretty valid at the time.
In terms of leadership, 16 caps at the helm have also brought education, Robshaw admitting that showdowns against McCaw and equally influential South Africa talisman Jean de Villiers offered an opportunity to “learn on the job.”
Even so, the manner in which 2012/3 unravelled – its nadir coming in Andy Irvine’s late April announcement – means the 27 year-old’s current standing with England is oddly uncertain. First, his brave effort during the Millennium Stadium mauling in March was overrun by the superior speed and stealth of Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton. Three weeks later, Harlequins’ exit from the Heineken Cup at the hands of Munster exposed some marked weariness on Robshaw’s part, in stark contrast with an inspired, effervescent and far fresher Paul O’Connell. To top off a spring of discontent, an ankle ligament strain scuppered any designs on helping to retain the Premiership trophy.
In between those knock-backs, Lancaster and O’Shea made the difficult decision to rest Robshaw from England’s tour of South America. The player was understandably willing – there must be a sense of ownership about this side given the amount he has offered to its cause – yet the body needed a break.
As it happened, Wood took the reins and guided an assured, history-making 2-0 series victory over the Pumas. Some now feel the Northampton Saint should captain on a permanent basis. In the absence of established internationals, some terrific tyros stood up. One, Matt Kvesic, injected the number seven shirt with tremendous energy – racking up a phenomenal 48 tackles in 160 minutes and demonstrating sparky carrying to go with intelligence on the floor.
Robshaw has spent his summer between a luxury holiday in the Caribbean, other pursuits such as his new coffee shop in Winchester and working to enhance his pace. Still, even if he concedes some respite was in order, those Sky+ sessions tuning into Salta and Velez Sarsfield can’t have been too comfortable.
“I think I probably needed [the break],” Robshaw continues. “At the time it’s always tough to see it from an outsider’s perspective. As a player, you go from week to week and keep cracking on. Sometimes you need someone to see the bigger picture. The coaches’ calls are something you have to respect. If it is tough, you need to realise it is for the best.
“It’s been a great summer for me, as it happens. I had six weeks to properly relax, and let all the knocks and niggles properly heal themselves.
“[England] have got a massive two years now that will hopefully end up with us back at Twickenham [for the 2015 Rugby World Cup final]. It’s an exciting time but it will also be intense – we go to New Zealand next summer for a very challenging three-Test tour and we need to make sure boys are fresh.
“There were some great efforts out in Argentina. I made my debut in Salta so I know how tough it is to go there. It spoke volumes that they managed to get two comfortable victories. There is that strength in depth now, with those younger guys coming through and putting their hands up – that’s what you need, two or three players in every position. That’s what drives the standards.”
The high-velocity talents of Tom Croft, Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan are other considerations for Lancaster as he looks to strike a back-row balance this autumn. Whoever gets the nod will cause headshaking. Opinion will be split, views aired in anger. Robshaw is reluctant to ponder the possibility of playing under another captain in the white of his country. In light of the inevitable jostling for a spot on the flank, though, an option such as Geoff Parling could offer better scope for continuity.
As for his own role at openside – something that had caused consternation before that was muffled by excellence – Robshaw may find newly appointed Saxon Luke Wallace as an obstacle to extended game-time. In this month’s 40-28 pre-season defeat to Racing Metro in Geneva, he lined up on the blindside opposite Dan Lydiate, moving across the scrum for the visit of Glasgow Warriors last weekend.
“I think this year it is similar to where we are with England and it’s very much interchangeable because we have a lot more options,” Robshaw explains. “There is myself, Luke, Maurie Fa’asavalu, Tom Guest, Nick Easter, Jack Clifford, Joe Trayfoot.
“All of these guys [will be in the mix] and it’s about varying it up so whenever a game comes around they are hungry. If you have the resources, why not use them the best you can?
“Racing was a tough game to start. Unfortunately we didn’t get the result but we were in the lead until about the 10 or 12 minutes and our fitness just started to lag a bit. They’re in our Heineken Cup pool, but you play in that competition to play those teams.
“Heading over there, we intend on really giving it a go to see where we are as a club.”
December 7 is the date that Harlequins will attempt to ransack Paris and storm past a stellar side potentially containing three victorious Lions in Lydiate, Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Roberts. By then, the autumn will have defined Robshaw’s role in Test rugby as well. Either way, any uncertainty should have gone.
By Charlie Morgan
Chris Robshaw was speaking on behalf of Maximuscle, the sports nutrition product of choice for elite and amateur rugby players. Maximuscle have launched a Reward Scheme to help amateur rugby clubs raise their game, for more information visit www.maximuscle.com/grassroots