- Chris Robshaw is third on the all-time list for England captains
- Australia game is chance to avoid "very disappointing autumn"
Chris Robshaw shifts somewhat uneasily in his chair when the conversation turns to the fact that he sits third on the all-time list of most Test matches as England captain.
After being appointed skipper for Stuart Lancaster’s first match in charge against Scotland nearly three years ago, the 28 year-old has taken his team onto the field on 30 occasions, with only leadership doyennes Will Carling (59) and Martin Johnson (41) ahead of him in the rugby annals.
Robshaw is an understated, uncluttered individual off the field, but pours an unrelenting on-pitch attitude into indefatigable performances. In the gritty win over Samoa to secure a first victory of the autumn last Saturday he chopped down 28 ball carriers, 10 more than any of his teammates.
As the ultimate team man, Robshaw’s apprehension when talking about any personal achievements is clear, preferring to modestly emphasise the roles of others and the part he has in the overall scheme to help the side succeed.
As if to reemphasise those traits, Robshaw was unaware that he is tucked in behind Carling and Johnson. Indeed, when asked what he would now advise the man who led England to a 13-6 win at Murrayfield in February 2012, he is quietly matter of fact.
“I’d probably say that you are going to go through some good times and bad times, that there are going to be a lot of challenges coming your way but in those great times you’re going to see a lot of the players around you really develop, take shape and come of age.
“That’s the beauty of this group, a lot of guys have come through it together. We’ve experienced both good and tough times, been though a lot and it has made us stronger together. You continue to develop, you continue to learn and you continue to evolve and hopefully you are not making the same mistakes you were making three years ago.
“Records are one of those things you don’t know about until you tell us, but that is a huge honour.
"There's no point in collecting personal accolades. We just want to win games"
“But from my side and the team’s side we just want to win games, there is no point in collecting caps and personal accolades, we want to go out there and pick up some silverware. We are getting closer.”
As Robshaw rightly attests, fine victories and high points have been regular during the course of his 30-Test reign as Lancaster’s chief executive officer on the field.
The dazzling win in Paris during his maiden RBS 6 Nations campaign; the record dismantling of world champions New Zealand the following December; and the complete performance against Wales to avenge the previous season’s Grand Slam horror show and secure a first Triple Crown since 2003 will live long in the memory.
However, chastening defeats and difficult times have also been endured. Two brutal defeats in South Africa in 2012 (Robshaw injured his thumb and missed the third Test draw); the previously referenced 30-3 loss in Cardiff in 2013 which shattered a Grand Slam dream and personal Lions ambitions; and the five straight losses to New Zealand and South Africa this year.
Australia, the fourth and final opponents in the 2014 QBE Internationals, arrive at Twickenham on Saturday as a neat, two-game microcosm of these up-and-down fortunes. Insipid England were overturned 20-14 in 2012 before bouncing back with a display of verve and accuracy to win 20-13 this time last year.
Looking back to the two games, Robshaw said: “2012 was tough, my first time playing Australia. The physicality they brought was extremely intense, especially at the breakdown. They moved the ball and were extremely smart as well, they find weaknesses. Even when they were attacking they kept the ball moving and put it in behind us to turn us.
“The following year, it was great to be back at Twickenham as it was our first game of the campaign. There was a huge amount of pressure and the guys really fronted up.
"Only Carling (59) and Johnson (41) have captained England more times than Robshaw (30)"
“I got my first international try as well, a sneaky little finish from not even a metre out. All week we had spoken about putting pressure on their lineout and their exits and someone charged it down and it bounced up to me luckily and I was able to dot it down.
“They were similar games between two evenly matched teams. The intensity we brought in the game we won was definitely up there and what we need to bring again. We were probably caught a bit cold the first year.”
Openside flankers such as Robshaw, ball scavengers and link-men so crucial to team continuity, are often closely compared to their opposite number on the pitch. If you’ve had a good game, by association your fellow No 7 must have had a bad game – and vice versa.
Closer reflection on the two Wallaby clashes emphasise that point. Man of the match Michael Hooper, now Australia captain, ran riot with fleet-footed intensity in 2012 before being largely anonymous the following year as Robshaw produced one of his finest England performances.
Discussing their battles, he said: “Michael Hooper is an incredible player; extremely quick, great over the ball, great link-play too. A lot of it can come down to the seven but it’s about a back row unit as well. They [opensides] may get the plaudits but it’s a unit together. That’s the important thing, it’s not down to one guy to take responsibility for the breakdown or carrying efficiently.
“It’s always tough if your opposite number gets man-of-the-match, I don’t think any player wants to see that. But all positions are judged [against each other], it’s international rugby and it’s a pressure environment. It’s about everyone fronting up and doing what they need to for the good of the side.”
Robshaw simply describes this year’s meeting as “huge”. After defeats to the All Blacks and Springboks – plus the added spice of a Rugby World Cup pool game next autumn – the game is the chance to avoid “a very disappointing autumn”.
He concluded with some thoughts on what England need to achieve in the nine remaining games before the Rugby World Cup next year.
"We want to be able to solve situations on the pitch"
“We want to continue to evolve, the important things is to not stand still. We want to be able to solve situations on the pitch if things aren’t going right and be able to adapt to what is happening. Things change and it is about being able to think on your feet and adapt the game plan.
“We know that we are lucky to go out there and represent England. It’s a huge honour to play for the country and we want to go out there and give something back.”
With Robshaw at the helm England are in safe hands on the journey to the Rugby World Cup curtain-raiser against Fiji on 18 September. And no one will try harder.