February 7, 2013 3:11 pm

The Pursuits Interview: Chris Robshaw

As round two of the Six Nations rugby championship gets under way this weekend, the England captain hopes his understated leadership style will propel his side to victory over Ireland

A little over a year ago Chris Robshaw had just a single international cap to his name. Now he is not only England captain but is starting to look as if he could represent the future of English rugby union. And yet Robshaw has never been a player to dominate a game: he is a hard worker who never showboats.

But last weekend Robshaw, 26, was certainly the most potent captain during the Six Nations’ first round, when he led England to victory over Scotland. In the national side’s preceding game, in the autumn internationals, England defeated the world champions New Zealand at Twickenham. His leadership in those two games has already led to him being talked about as one of the best international captains.

Robshaw is a fascinating prospect as captain precisely because he is so understated. Of course, he loves to win, but he doesn’t blatantly revel in the accompanying glory and fame. Conor O’Shea, his coach at Harlequins – where he plays his club rugby – once said Robshaw would be much happier if he could both captain England and play rugby without an audience.

Given his quiet presence on the pitch, it’s strange that he was picked out as captain at all, given the public-facing nature of the role. In fact, his thoughtful, low-key leadership mirrors that of the recently appointed England coach, Stuart Lancaster.

Robshaw and I talked at The Hurlingham Club in London, the week before England played Scotland. Though he’s not as comfortable as some of his predecessors when it comes to talking to journalists, he’s always thoughtful in his responses. I was eager to find out what sort of captain he thinks he is.

“Leadership is about understanding the players around you,” says Robshaw. “You’ve got to know whether it’s more beneficial in a situation to scream and shout or put an arm round a player – knowing that is what makes you good. That’s the key to leadership for me.”

Chris Robshaw rides the Scottish tackles during last Saturday’s Six Nations win at Twickenham©Getty

Robshaw rides the Scottish tackles during last Saturday’s Six Nations win at Twickenham

People used to say of former England rugby captain Will Carling that the players around him were taller, faster and stronger when he was on the pitch. When Martin Johnson, another former England captain, was playing, his teammates palpably stepped up a gear: no one ducked confrontation because they knew he never would. Is that leadership, I wonder?

“It’s all leadership,” says Robshaw. “But good leadership is about being true to yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses. Every England captain is different. I happen to think that being a good captain is also about being a good player.

“It’s vitally important for me to win my shirt on merit. The playing side of captaincy should never be underestimated. I know that it would be very difficult for people to take me seriously as a captain if they were sitting there thinking that I didn’t even deserve to be in the team at all. The other important thing that’s always in my mind is that I should never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. I’m very clear about that in my own mind.”

Robshaw has displayed integrity, humility and – increasingly – confidence as a captain, something that is all the more impressive given how recent his appointment is.

Robshaw was seven when he joined Warlingham rugby club near his home in Redhill, Surrey, and his entire professional career has been spent with Harlequins. He lives in Kingston-on-Thames, a few miles from the club, with his girlfriend, the classical singer Camilla Kerslake.

“Obviously, I was incredibly honoured to be made captain,” he says. “Who wouldn’t be? People wondered whether I had enough experience, but the thing with international rugby is that you’ve got lots of people in the team who captain their club sides week in, week out – so there are leaders all over the pitch. In many ways, my job is to captain the captains. I have a great group of players in this team and we’re all involved in the decision-making.”

Robshaw was extremely grateful for those players after the autumn international against South Africa, when he was criticised for his decision to instruct the team to kick for a penalty instead of running for a try, which could have won them the match. The public jury is still out on whether he made the right call – it’s unlikely England would have scored that try, but the popular view was that Robshaw had messed up. The team closed ranks around him, defended him and backed him. It was a significant moment in the making of this England team.

England's captain Chris Robshaw in action against New Zealand during their Rugby Union QBE Internationals match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium in London, Britain©EPA

Robshaw takes on world champions New Zealand last December

“It was tough after that game,” he says. “I knew what everyone was saying in the press, and I admit my head was down when I went back to join the squad for the preparation for the next match. But the guys were brilliant – they told me to forget about it. It wasn’t important. That made me really appreciate the people around me. Our backs were to the wall and the squad pulled together. We went out and beat New Zealand in the next match.

“Perhaps that’s the first time people realised I was a fighter, and not one to easily give up,” he says, with a shrug. “Until then people didn’t know much about me. It would have been great to have stayed together as a team after that New Zealand victory – we were so buoyed up and happy – but that’s the way international rugby works. It was the end of the autumn internationals, so we all went our separate ways – back to our clubs.”

Now they’re back, though, for the Six Nations championship, with one victory under their belts already. They face Ireland on Sunday and France next Saturday.

“The Six Nations is a tough competition, but I know that we can win it and it would be a fantastic step for England after beating New Zealand – it would give us huge confidence.”

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