The anonymity of Robshaw
January 23, 2013
Chris Robshaw - the face of English rugby? © Getty Images
A columnist in The Independent the other day noted wryly that he had seen Chris Robshaw travelling on the London Underground, snoozing his way up the Piccadilly Line on the way to the Emirates Stadium (Robshaw is a Gooner and had a ticket to see Arsenal v Manchester City) with no one pestering him for an autograph or a photo or even for a view on whether England should play a kicking game or unveil a few new strike moves against Scotland next week.
The gist of the piece, though impossible to prove absolutely, was that the current captain of England could go about his private business unrecognised by the public.
The obvious parallel to draw was with the England football manager Roy Hodgson who, when he was travelling on the 'Tube' a few months ago was recognised and photographed and happy to converse with a fellow passenger - if the press reporting was correct - about the international future or lack of it of Rio Ferdinand.
Robshaw by contrast was able to keep himself to himself despite holding what English rugby followers would surely consider to be the equivalent of high office, albeit that of course in this game the team is the thing.
My initial reaction was to be surprised and wonder what this said about both the man and the current public awareness of the job he does.
For starters, it must be good if any top sportsman feels comfortable enough to jump on public transport like any other regular human being. Ken Livingstone, the former Greater London Council leader and latterly Mayor of London, was all right by me for eschewing the chauffeur-driven limo in favour of taking the Jubilee line to and from his Brent constituency.
That Hodgson was happy to do it was heartening from a football man, given that, sadly, you could not envisage Ferdinand himself or David Beckham or whoever else you might regard as a famous English footballer swiping his Oyster card and hitting the escalators to mingle with the great unwashed.
'Famous' is the salient word - or do I mean 'celebrity'? Which English rugby figure on the 'Tube' might prompt a prod in the chest or a sideways glance of "blimey, is that who I think it is?"
Thinking of England captains, Bill Beaumont was the best known for many years, due principally to his TV appearances as a captain on 'A Question of Sport'. The face-pulling antics of Matt Dawson these days are a different approach to Beaumont pondering David Coleman's questions wearing a furrowed brow and a v-neck jumper.
Then there was Will Carling, who first popped up on front pages draped in the flag of St George around the time of the 1991 World Cup then with salacious stories and grainy photos linking him to Princess Diana. The barometer that is tabloid paper attention rocketed next for Lawrence Dallaglio, by dint of the "Drug dealer" story sting perpetrated by the News of the World. Later, I would guess most casual observers would have recognised Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson, from the blanket coverage and the success of the 2003 World Cup.
Thus far, Robshaw has neither the medals nor the scandal to justify anything like that exposure. He has a moderately well-known girlfriend, but the opera-singing Camilla Kerslake is no Spice Girl. At one of the big rugby awards dinners last season, I was sitting near a South African-born insurance reporter who saw Robshaw shaking hands with people on our table and did not have a clue who he was.
This week Robshaw was reappointed as England's captain for the Six Nations Championship, making him a live candidate for the same role with the Lions. The Rugby Football Union have trained him in public speaking, and he is patient with the media when on official duty; self-deprecating and good humoured given half a chance. I remember bumping into him in the Harlequins car park after a match not long before he became the national skipper a year ago and rather than skulking uncooperatively into his vehicle he was happy to chat for a few minutes, as long as it was done with mutual respect. The clearest indication that Robshaw is not an awkward so-and-so was his award from the UK Rugby Union Writers' Club as their 2012 personality of the year ahead of worthy candidates including Richie McCaw and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. A highly notable nod of respect from a group that is hard-to-please.
Should we rejoice in the fact that the quid pro quo - or the price, if you like - of an England player being uncontroversial, dedicated to his sport and possessed of a decent set of values is a lack of impact on a nation's wider consciousness? England players' wages have been hiked recently, and though they remain a small fraction of the mind-boggling sums in football, you wonder whether the paymasters among sponsors and broadcasters would be perturbed if the biggest names in our game may be passing the public by.
What would have to change for Robshaw to contemplate and be prepared to deal with greater public recognition? His stubbly features plastered all over the BBC as he leads England to a Grand Slam this year, with much greater 'reach' than Harlequins' matches shown on subscription channels? Or as the face of the 2015 World Cup? The latter tournament will certainly bring rugby to the masses in his home country. It could be the tipping point between a quiet trip on the Tube and taking a taxi next time.
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