Chris Robshaw is one of the most resilient players I have ever met in sport. I could yack on about it ad infinitum: how long I’ve been a sports journalist, how many big global events I have covered, how many of the world’s greats I have had the privilege of writing about. But for sheer bloody-minded resilience, Robshaw is absolutely one of the all-time best.
This is all too significant today because he has been named as captain of the England team to play Samoa at Twickenham on Saturday. Well, he has been named co-captain. He and George Ford will share the role.
This is probably just a one-off. I would be genuinely surprised if it happens again. It is only likely to reoccur in the case of an injury crisis.
However, let’s treasure it for now. We have to remember that Robshaw, as much as any player, took the flak for England’s demise in the 2015 World Cup. He was Stuart Lancaster’s captain for the entirety of that four-year cycle and they came crashing down so heavily that it was very reasonable to ask if we would see him in an England shirt again. He was only 29.
Then, when Jones was appointed the England coach to succeed Lancaster, the writing on the wall looked clearer than ever.
Immediately, the scathing comments that Jones wrote about Robshaw in his newspaper column during that World Cup were disinterred. Jones had described Robshaw as “a good workmanlike player” and explained: “To me, Robshaw is an outstanding club player but at international level he just doesn’t have that point of difference. He carries OK, he tackles OK, but he is not outstanding in any area. I think that is his limiting factor.”
Since then, Jones has discussed Robshaw’s qualities as a squad man. He has described him as being happier as one of the troops, not so readily your out-and-out leader.
And yet here we are now, nearly two years on, and Robshaw has been not only a staple of Jones’ team, but reappointed to the captaincy. He has gone full circle; his return is complete.
How has Robshaw pulled it off?
Sheer bloody-mindedness is the first answer. The stick he took after the World Cup would have beaten most people. The first time I saw Robshaw after that World Cup, I struggled to look him in the eye; he didn’t have a problem at all. He has thick skin, yes, he must do. But there is an incredible determination within to prove people wrong.
Jones has had a big hand in this too. Once installed as the England coach, he quickly apologised for his comments about Robshaw; he needed to, he knew that he needed Robshaw in his team.
Significantly, he switched Robshaw’s position. He took him away from the no7 spot and moved him to blindside. A subtle but very significant change. No longer did watching Robshaw become a case of noticing what he wasn’t doing but appreciating what he was.
No doubt Robshaw’s confidence grew. As his position in Jones’s side was cemented, two dates stand out. One is 18 June 2016, when England played Australia in Melbourne; it was Robshaw’s 50th cap, a massive day for England, one of the most heroic defensive performances in decades. And Robshaw crowned that day, his 50th cap day, with a Man of the Match performance that showcased all his qualities: resilience, courage, energy, a refusal to let the opposition pass.
The other date was yesterday. For not only has Robshaw proved himself worthy of reassuming the captaincy, he has been selected at no7 again – the position where he was so “workmanlike”. And yes, the circumstances played a huge part here, injuries have wiped out the alternatives.
Nevertheless, this selection is the ultimate statement of Robshaw as a lifeforce. Everything that was taken away he has now clawed back.
This is not the second reign of the fallen king
This is a one-off. As I said above, I do not expect Robshaw to be captain again.
He has been appointed co-captain on this occasion because the regular skipper, Dylan Hartley, is on the bench. And in the pecking order of England captaincy candidates, behind Hartley lies Owen Farrell. Farrell has also been rested for this game, he is not even in the matchday 23.
If you had to put money on who will captain England at the World Cup in two years’ time, I would say Farrell. Then Hartley. Not Robshaw.
However, in appointing his skipper for this one-off game, Jones could have turned to Mike Brown who has regularly been one of the team vice-captains. Or he could have turned to Maro Itoje who has captained club and England teams throughout the age-grades and has long been regarded as an England captain in waiting.
However, there is something about Robshaw that Jones underestimated when he was observing from afar and penning his World Cup columns. He underestimated his indefatigability, his determination and the respect that these qualities inspire in his teammates. He didn’t really see what others see in him.
It takes something for a prominent figure, like Jones, to reevaluate a judgement, especially when it has been made so publicly. Yet that is what Jones has done here. It is for one day only, but it is the ultimate statement of Robshaw the man and the completion of his comeback.