England coach Stuart Lancaster has heaped praise on captain Chris Robshaw’s ability to deal with the pressure of leading England and still perform at the highest level.
Lancaster installed Robshaw as his skipper when he took charge of the national side last year and they have enjoyed a similar rollercoaster ride of emotion over the past year as each came to terms with the demands of their role. Both coach and captain embrace this year’s Six Nations on much firmer ground and Lancaster believes that is largely down to Robshaw’s capacity to not only lead – but do so by example.
“When we started Chris had one cap and I had none,” said Lancaster in reference to the gamble the Rugby Football Union took in appointing him and his own decision to hand the captaincy to a talented though inexperienced, at least at international level, Robshaw.
A new-look England went on to finish second in the Six Nations before going toe-to-toe with South Africa on a brutal and largely-fruitless tour in the summer. Greater strides would come in the autumn with a stunning victory over New Zealand at Twickenham but it came during a series that saw Robshaw’s captaincy questioned on and off the field. But Lancaster’s faith never wavered and he did not hesitate in re-appointing him for the Six Nations.
“I think we have been through the ups and downs of it together,” added Lancaster. “Chris, like me, is still learning a lot about the role and what we have both done well, and what Chris has done particularly well, is not allow it to affect his own on-field performance which is often what can happen when players get given additional responsibility whether it is calling the lineout or being a playmaker.
“What Chris has been able to do is deal with the responsibility and everything that comes with being an England captain and still deliver on the field at the highest level. Just look at the sides he has played against and the stats that he produces week in, week out. Rucks, carries, tackles – he is top of it every time and that is what has impressed me most. His ability to lead and play at the same time.”
When pressed on his prowess, Robshaw is quick to point to the support he receives. “I am in a very privileged position as leader as I have a number of other leaders around me who help take responsibility,” he said. “Whether that is Dylan Hartley or Geoff Parling in the forwards or Brad Barritt, Toby Flood, Owen Farrell, these types of guys who do it for their club and when they come to England they want to put their hands up and do their bit for the side. It’s guys like this who take on responsibility and allow you to step back a bit and overview it.”
With success comes the pressure to repeat that level of performance consistently and Robshaw insists no one asks more of him than he does of himself. “I think you always feel the weight of expectation but as individual you set your own standards, you don’t let other people to tell you what you want, you put pressure on yourself and analyse yourself more than anyone else can do. You always want to be better and keep moving forward and now that is the challenge for myself.”
Consistency is also a key goal for Lancaster and that does not just mean crossing the whitewash as regularly as they did against the world champions in December. “What we did really well in the New Zealand game was not back up an error with an error which is what will sometimes hurt you as a team.
“But I think the defining thing for me from the New Zealand game was not the tries or the scoreline, but the last minute and a half when we were down to 14 men and could have conceded a try but we didn’t. That mentality and fight for each other is the defining point of difference than many people don’t give us credit for.”
Looking ahead, Lancaster faces a battle to conjure the same level of performance witnessed against the All Blacks against Scotland at Twickenham on February 2. But crucially they must muster that from a standing start.
“I think now we have a culture where we can build a high performing team,” said Lancaster. “The trick for us now is to build on that All Blacks performance and get that consistency that we need to win at the highest level and there is no better chance to prove yourself than the Six Nations.”