A year ago, Stuart Lancaster sat at the RBS Six Nations press launch as the interim coach, knowing the results that his team garnered over the tournament would have a say as to whether he stayed on as coach. Robshaw wasn’t there last year, but would shortly be named as captain having previously won just one senior cap. Neither man had any doubt as to the pressure they were under.
This year the circumstances are certainly different, but there is arguably more pressure to succeed. After the massively impressive win against New Zealand, you get the sense that anything other than winning the Six Nations would be a disappointment, both for the players and coaches, and the fans.
Both men acknowledge that it’s been quite a year. “It has been pretty surreal looking back on it,” says Robshaw. “It’s now about kicking on and moving forwards once again.” Lancaster speaks of the relative upturn in results and performances. “While we’ve not won every game, we’ve not been smashed in any of them – we’ve always remained competitive. We’ve got a culture now where we can build a high-performing team.”
So does the success of the past year mean the squad, and Robshaw in particular, feel more pressure to succeed? “I think you always do (feel that pressure), and as an individual you set your own standards. I don’t think you let other people tell you what you want; you put pressure on yourself, and analyse yourself more than most do.”
When Lancaster took over, he promised a change in culture; to make players understand “the reason why playing for England is special.” It certainly seems that he has succeeded in doing so; you only have to look at the change in Danny Care’s attitude on and off the pitch to see what it means to him to play for England. Lancaster must take huge credit for that.
But what of the future? Having successfully implemented a new culture, what are the goals going forward and what can the fans expect this Six Nations? “The trick now is to build on that All-Blacks performance, and get the consistency that we need to win at the highest level, and there’s no better chance to prove yourself than the Six Nations.”
As for that victory over New Zealand, no one is in any doubt that it was a step-up in performance, and Robshaw is confident that they can keep up that level. “It’s about kicking on, and saying ‘that game’s happened, this is a completely new campaign’. This week we’ve come in and it’s all about England, and how we can get our game going again; our moves, our calling systems, our structures, all that stuff.”
As they search for that consistency, then, it is important to get the personnel right. “We’ve got the same coaching team now in place as the Autumn Internationals, and it’s the first time we’ve had that,” says Lancaster. “We’ve got the same group of players, give or take a few new guys coming in, but generally we’ve got a good understanding of where we are both tactically and technically. Our start point this year is higher. It counts for nothing, though, if you don’t prepare yourself and get yourself ready for the next game; for Scotland.”
That Scotland game is an immensely important one. A defeat in the opening game of the championship, at home, would be catastrophic. And over the past few years the encounters between these two proud nations have been tight, never decided by more than a few points. “No-one leaves an inch out there on the pitch, because it’s such a great rivalry,” says Robshaw, who has only faced Scotland once, in this fixture last year. “If you’re attacking, they’re just going to be trying to defend even harder. You’re shutting each other down and it just comes down to those small margins.”
It will certainly be an intriguing campaign for England. The first year of the Lancaster/Robshaw partnership may have yielded answers to a host of tough questions, but there are still plenty more to come. Let’s hope, then, that they’ve managed to find some of this elusive consistency they were speaking so much about.