England v New Zealand: Chris Robshaw ‘will never ever give up’

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer
Chris Robshaw England's Captain

There is intimidation in sport, and then there are statistical nightmares.

This Saturday England will attempt to beat New Zealand on a ground where the reigning world champions have not lost a Test in 20 years, against a side who have won their last 30 matches at home, having beaten the All Blacks on their own turf only once in the lifetime of any of the players and with a team stripped of more than half those men who started their last match.

It is perhaps a necessary thing, then, that they will be led out by a captain who thrives not only in adversity but in quietly tearing preconceptions apart.

Chris Robshaw might not strike you as a man who has had to fight his way through life: a start at one of England's best public schools; graduation at Harlequins, traditionally the club of City boys and Sloaney girls; elevation to the England captaincy in his mid-20s, with all the deference and opportunity that brings.

The turbulence beneath that calm exterior is easier to overlook: losing his father to a heart attack at the age of five; struggling with severe dyslexia at school; left out late of England's squad for the last World Cup, ignored entirely for the Lions squad a year ago.

Even now, having led his country more times than all but two men in history, he is sometimes derided as pleasantly prosaic, neither as darkly menacing as Martin Johnson nor as shimmyingly showbiz as Will Carling.

And that, to those who know him best, is to both misunderstand the man and underestimate what his England side can achieve.

"It's very easy to tell people what they can't do," says Conor O'Shea, Robshaw's director of rugby at Quins. "You'll talk to people, and they'll say, 'Chris can't do this' or 'He can't do that'.

"And you think, have you not seen what he can do? Have you looked at his tackle count? Have you looked at the number of times he slowed the ball down? The number of rucks he makes? The number of times he acts as the pivot, or the first receiver? What about all those? Why are you telling me that he can't run like Usain Bolt?

"He is relentless in his quest to be as good as he can be. He'll never ever give up. Ever.

"This season, he pulled us across the line so many times. Whenever anyone said we were gone, he was the bloke saying, 'No we're not'.

That desperation to impress, to advance with every step, was visible when rugby was an escape rather than a career.

"My first impression of Chris when he arrived at school was how incredibly willing to learn he was," says Jonathan Brimacombe, who coached the 13-year-old Robshaw at Millfield through to his senior year.

"He would listen and try very hard to put into place what you were asking him to do as a coach, in a way that was pretty unusual for a boy of that age.

"He'd had a fair amount of difficulty in his life - his dad dying, and his learning difficulties, which were quite profound. He struggled with both his writing and processing information.

"I think he saw rugby as an opportunity to express himself to his full potential, without having to worry about what he could or couldn't do. It was just an opportunity to say, 'Right, I'm good at this: I want to get better, and I want to do it to the best of my ability.'"

"School work was always a struggle," Robshaw has admitted. "I had to work really hard to do things that other people found straightforward."

He had been brought up in Surrey with his brothers James and Al, his mother Patricia's nursing homes business funding the boys' education at £11,000-a-term Millfield, the basics of his rugby schooling coming at Warlingham RFC just south of Croydon.

"He didn't have much confidence in the things he felt he wasn't much good at," remembers Brimacombe.

"His confidence came from his ability in rugby, and also the knowledge that he was trying as hard as he could. He had nothing to feel ashamed of if he couldn't do something, because he was doing the best that he could."

Robshaw, sinewy rather than solid, began as a stand-in prop but developed as a flanker, the school's emphasis on good hands and quick movement manifested in their victory at the National Schools Sevens under his leadership.

"I let the boys choose the captain, and they were in awe of Chris's work ethic," recalls Brimacombe.

"He played in a very good side, with [future England internationals] Olly Morganexternal-link and Anthony Allen,external-link and he probably wasn't the best player in the team from a purely rugby sense.

"But he was the one who, when the rain was falling and the mud was thick, you wanted by your side. He didn't have to say much - it was a case of, 'I'll go first, and you boys follow me.'"

When Quins offered him a chance with their academy in 2005, that same attitude made an immediate impression on the established stars.

"In pre-season Dean Richards had taken over, so we had a fair idea there would be some hard graft," says Nick Easter, the club's back-row stalwart and former England number eight.

"We were doing 800 metre runs. [Former Springbok skipper] Andre Vos was there, clearly a very fit man, and the leader of the club at the time.

"This kid Robshaw rocks up, and he started lapping us other back rows. He's not particularly quick in a one-off sprint, but he could just keep on going and going and going.

"The lactic acid seems to disappear from his body as soon as he creates it. I stood there watching with coach John Kingston, and we just looked at each other - 'Look at this kid's engine!' And then he started to lap Andre Vos."

Over the subsequent nine seasons Easter and Robshaw have become a complementary fixture in the back row for Quins, partners in the side's leadership group and pivotal in O'Shea's vision of what the club should become after the Bloodgate scandal that presaged the Irishman's arrival.

Easter is keen the world sees an accurate picture of his skipper - ribbed in the dressing-room for his questionable taste in music and clothes, nicknamed 'Sir Robbo' for his upbringing, a snorer so loud he is allotted his own room while other team-mates share on away trips.

"He does have a penchant for champagne on nights out," says Easter. "He doesn't go for the local beer. He pays on his mum's credit card as well. He's quite tight with his money, and he could improve his dressing-room banter."

But he is unequivocal when it comes to Robshaw's contribution on the pitch, even as others continue to deride a perceived lack of star quality.

"In my opinion they can't know much about the game. They are the sort of people who only notice a stand-out 30 metre run or the big hit, not what really goes on - the stuff that allows a team to get quick ball, that stops a team being turned over, the legwork, the carries for another yard, the double tackles. All the stuff that keeps a team going.

"He has this constant willingness to improve. It's a testament to him knowing at each time what his limits are, but that he wants to stretch those limits. His handling skills have improved greatly, his decision-making - when to pass, when not to pass - is better.

"Chris hardly makes an error, that's the thing, yet he gets involved so many times. The amount of times he gets over the ball should make him a penalty machine, but he has made sure it hasn't."

A couple of other notable statistics for you. In this year's Six Nations, Robshaw made more tackles (85) than any other Englishman. In three matches alone he hit 30 rucks.

"When you look at the all-round package, he's an unbelievable rugby player who is practically top of everything," says O'Shea.

"If you tell him he's got something to work on - I won't call it a weakness - he will go away and work on it harder than any other person.

"After Chris had missed out on the Lions, Laurie Fisher, coach of the ACT Brumbies, came in to spend a day or two with the club.

"Laurie came up to me on the first afternoon and said, 'I just want to make sure this is appropriate - Chris Robshaw has just said to me, because I worked with [legendary Wallabies flanker] George Smith, will I do some breakdown work with him after the session has finished?'

"That typifies Chris. If he sees someone he can learn off, he'll take that opportunity quicker than you or I. 'He's worked with Smith, he's worked with [Australia open-side flanker] David Pocock, I have to work with him'."

Robshaw is unlikely to be overawed by the All Blacks' peerless record. Eighteen months ago he was England's best player when they stunned Steve Hansen's men 38-21 at Twickenham, outperforming in every area a side who were unbeaten in 20 matches and had more international caps in their front row alone than the entire England team.

A year on he was similarly inspirational as they came from 14 points down to lead 22-20 before the All Blacks gained revenge with a late try and penalty.

Quite what would constitute success in this month's three-match series is a moot point. On their last two tours of New Zealand England have conceded an average of more than 38 points a game while scoring an average of just over 12.

Fifteen months out from a World Cup on home soil, England coach Stuart Lancaster will want to ensure, if nothing else, a continuity in the style of play he has developed over the past two years, and a rehabilitation of the team's image after the off-field scandals that dogged their last two visits in 2011 and 2008.

In Robshaw he has a captain who embodies both those aims, a man whose example on the pitch takes primacy over any Churchillian oratory.

"Stuart has seen in Chris what I saw in Chris: he epitomises what you want your team to be," says O'Shea.

"The one bit of advice I gave Chris from day one was to be yourself. Do not try to be Clive Woodward or Stuart Lancaster or Dean Richards. You were picked as Quins captain because you're you. You were made England captain because you're you.

"Don't fail by trying to be someone you're not. If people don't want you, they don't want you. Develop everything you can as well as you can, but be you.

"And I'm really proud of what he has achieved. But at the same time I know he hasn't achieved half of what he wants to."

Easter agrees. "What really what makes a true man is how you deal with setbacks. That has been a massive driving force for Chris.

"In life it can be a case of who you know, and a little bit of luck here and there. If you have a special gift for something you'll probably supersede someone who doesn't but works really hard.

"In sport, it's the opposite. You work hard and you get your just rewards. And I think that's what Chris has found."


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