Chris Robshaw has led England admirably since being thrust into the role with only one cap to his name, but will Stuart Lancaster stick with him this season?
With the exception of a well-documented bizarre penalty decision against South Africa last autumn he has done little wrong, both as a player and captain, when he has worn England’s white shirt. The Harlequins flanker has been named man of the match on a number of occasions in recent internationals and led his country to some impressive wins, including the famous home victory over the All Blacks.
He does, however, potentially face an uncertain few months ahead, after missing out on selection for the Lions tour and being rested for England’s successful test series in Argentina. England were led by Northampton Saints flanker Tom Wood in Robshaw’s absence and achieved the first clean sweep of victories between the two sides, whilst exposing new back row talent to the international stage in the contrasting shapes of Matt Kvesic and Billy Vunipola. Several of their Lions contingent, including Tom Croft, also performed well in the series win against Australia.
Although Stuart Lancaster has consistently endorsed Robshaw as his on field lieutenant and has picked him to captain the side for all his tests in charge except when injured or rested, he has also refused to give him the job on a permanent basis, choosing to select his Elite England squad and confirm his captain shortly before the subsequent set of international matches.
This means that naming a new skipper will be fairly straight forward, from a political and squad morale perspective.
Robshaw not only faces stiff competition for the captaincy but also for his place in the starting line up. Matt Kvesic, considered to be an out and out openside flanker in the southern hemisphere mould, was outstanding in his debut test against Argentina, recording a monstrous 29 tackles. The former Worcester and England U20s star is certain to be selected in Lancaster’s next Elite squad and his game is sure to improve at Gloucester, as he gets his first taste of Heineken Cup rugby in the company of fellow England back rower Ben Morgan.
Speculation is mounting that Tom Wood will be named by Lancaster as England’s captain for the Autumn Internationals, when the Elite squad is announced on Thursday. But the Northampton blindside also has his work cut out securing a place in the back row ahead of Tom Croft, who now has a third Premiership title to his name and played his part in the Lions series win to add to an impressive rugby CV – just a year after a neck injury threatened to prematurely end his playing career.
Lancaster has the luxury of tinkering with his back row in the autumn and surely needs to test Kvesic against one of The Rugby Championship* giants before next year’s Six Nations. Of those not already mentioned, James Haskell, Calum Clark and Will Fraser could also be named as part of the back row contingent in the next Elite squad.
Who else could captain England against Australia in their opening autumn international? The main prerequisite for the role is clearly that he must be a guaranteed starter. England have depth in several positions but few players are nailed on in the one to fifteen shirts. However, Geoff Parling could be considered one of a select few in this category. He already leads England’s line out and was named as the Lions midweek captain against the Melbourne Rebels, before being pulled out of the clash ahead of the second test following an injury to Irish veteran Paul O’Connell.
Parling also allegedly tore into his fellow Lions players following the midweek loss to the Brumbies. This did not go unnoticed by Lions management and his leadership credentials were championed by both Lions coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton during the tour.
Robshaw and Wood are both fine players and will be included in the next England Elite squad but they should fight it out with the other selected back row personnel to secure their places in the England XV. Until they have, and maybe even until the end of 2015, Parling might just be the best captaincy option for Lancaster.
*England face Australia (November 2nd), Argentina (November 9th) and New Zealand (November 16th) in the QBE Autumn Internationals.
By Alastair Pickering
Picture: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images