The appointment of Stuart Lancaster as England head coach earlier this year signalled yet another period of transition for the national team, a theme which has been prevalent for England since their Rugby World Cup triumph back in 2003. The side has so far performed admirably given the introduction of new personnel both on and off the field, and one of the highlights has been the leadership that Chris Robshaw brought as captain.
As such, it was a surprise for many that Lancaster refrained from confirming Robshaw as his captain for the upcoming Autumn Internationals last week, albeit stating that the flanker would be ‘strongly considered’. Lancaster listed both fitness and form as possible reasons that could potentially prevent Robshaw from resuming his duties as captain, and placed as much importance on having leaders at key positions such as scrum-half, fly-half and line-out caller.
An important factor for Lancaster to consider is whether or not a healthy Robshaw would even warrant a position in the England back row. This seems ludicrous to say about a player who not only performed so admirably in an England shirt last season, but also led his club side, Harlequins, to an Aviva Premiership trophy, picking up the Aviva Premiership Player of the Year award en route. Returns to form and fitness for both Tom Wood (likely) and Tom Croft (unlikely) could push Robshaw down the pecking order, not to mention the consistently impressive Tom Johnson or physical prowess of James Haskell.
If there is any doubt in Lancaster’s mind that Robshaw is not one of his first choice flankers, then he needs to start seriously considering other names for the role. Hooker Dylan Hartley took over the captaincy for England’s last test in South Africa this summer following an injury to Robshaw, and led England to a draw in Port Elizabeth. He was however sin-binned during the game and his disciplinary history may work against him if Lancaster is looking for a long term candidate for the role.
The England Elite Squad is one of the youngest in recent memory and there does seem to be a lack of leadership credentials in the group. Both Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole now have significant experience in an England shirt, and are certainly the types of players to lead by example, but their lack of experience as captains at club level could play against them. Toby Flood is another name which has been mentioned in relation to the captaincy, but any doubts over Robshaw not starting would surely be even more prevalent with Flood due to the emergence of Owen Farrell as England’s number one fly half.
With Croft unlikely to be able to return to full fitness by the time of the Autumn Internationals, Robshaw’s place in the England side is probably safe for the moment, barring a series of world class performances from either Johnson or Haskell, making him favourite to retain the captaincy.
Robshaw has proven he can replicate his club form when burdened by the responsibilities that come with one of the most demanding roles in international rugby. The Harlequins flanker, if reappointed, will lead England through the Autumn Internationals proficiently whilst Lancaster continues to develop his understanding of his players both on and off the field.
However, if he is reappointed captain, then this is most likely a short-term solution. As gifted a player as Robshaw is, a fully fit and in-form duo of Wood and Croft lay the foundations for a back row which can compete with any in world rugby, and as such, would get my vote for England in the long term. Do not be surprised if we see a new captain come the Six Nations – one who would likely take the team through to the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and beyond.
By Alex Shaw