Robshaw must rise to the challenge
January 30, 2012
Chris Robshaw will lead England into their opening Six Nations clash with just one Test cap to his name © Getty Images
England took a significant step in their bid to rid themselves of the stench that emanated from their recent Rugby World Cup campaign by appointing Chris Robshaw as captain.
The 25-year-old Quins skipper was not part of the squad that failed spectacularly to cover itself in glory in New Zealand having failed to make the grade - unfairly to those who had observed his stand-out season on the domestic stage and others who witnessed his efforts during the pre-tournament training camp. But missing that boat appears to have served him well in the long run with interim head coach Stuart Lancaster deciding he is the man to lead England out of the darkness.
The absence of any significant tie to the Martin Johnson regime may well be seen as a positive but the trouble is Robshaw has no real connection to any previous England set-up. His one Test cap, against Argentina in 2009, was earned during Johnson's tenure with the absence of those rivals on duty with British & Irish Lions in South Africa smoothing his ascent to the international stage. He failed to cement his place in the squad and remained a periphery figure with his club form ensuring he was always there or thereabouts but time and time again it was not deemed enough to usurp his rivals and return to the Test match arena.
He looked on course to realise his potential when handed the captaincy of England's midweek side on the tour of Australia in 2010 but yet again he was merely flirting with another Test cap - a fact hammered home a year later when his outstanding attitude and results during testing ahead of the World Cup were not rewarded - to the bewilderment of some of his team-mates.
But at last his time has come. His form at the heart of Quins' impressive showing in this season's Premiership could be ignored no longer and the campaign to see him anointed was up and running months before Lancaster finally bestowed the honour on him in the luxurious surrounds of the side's Surrey training base. But it is a major gamble onb Lancaster's part.
England will have their least experienced skipper in almost 28 years since Nigel Melville led the side on debut. Lancaster hopes that alarming void will be filled with the help of a "leadership group" - a template that has worked so well for the World Cup winning-All Blacks. But where New Zealand could call on a decade or more of experience in the form of future Test centurions Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina and the equally impressive Test match miles racked up by the likes of Andrew Hore, Conrad Smith and Brad Thorn on their way to world dominance, England's cupboard looks a little bare.
Fly-half Toby Flood is the most experienced player in the current crop but is currently sidelined through injury and will be of little help in the cauldron that is Murrayfield. Hooker Dylan Hartley, who like Robshaw is his club's skipper, was considered a rival for the captaincy this time around but his relatively low Test cap haul of 34 still leaves question marks. Flanker Tom Croft is another to fall into that category and a lot will be expected of both men as Robshaw finds his Test match feet again.
Veteran fly-half Charlie Hodgson will no doubt be a steadying hand should he be asked to orchestrate proceedings on Saturday as expected but he is another who will be looking to reacquaint himself with Six Nations intensity - something he has not been exposed to since 2008.
But at least he has some experience to draw on. Robshaw faces a real test on Saturday and how he responds to that challenge will go a long way to deciding whether he holds onto the captaincy should previous favourite Tom Wood regain his fitness and his place in the side. And should events not go his way in Edinburgh then things are unlikely to get any easier in front of an expected 65,000 crowd at Italy's new Stadio Olimpico home a week on Saturday where Robshaw will also lead - maybe for the last time.
As praiseworthy his domestic form and notable his leadership in Quins colours, having steered them to Amlin Challenge Cup glory last season and got them on course for Premiership honours this term, the step up to international rugby is a formidable one. The intensity and speed of the game will test the most grizzled of veterans let alone a novice. The Saxons and the Heineken Cup will have added to Robshaw's rugby CV but those competitions do little to ease concerns that England are entrusting the captaincy whose game time at the elite level of the game totals 53 minutes. And Robshaw must not only convince he is worthy of a place in the side but also display the leadership prowess that warrants Lancaster's faith.
Like his coach, he will have the support of a nation desperate to forgive past shortcomings but that goodwill will only last so long. More important will those in the thick of the battle alongside him and without whose respect, support and understanding both Robshaw and the side are destined to fail.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.