Johnson calls for country to unite behind Robshaw
Former coach tells why he left him out in 2011 Flanker joins legend on 39 caps as leader tonight
Martin Johnson wants the country to unite behind Chris Robshaw, insisting the England captain is the right man to lead the bid for a first World Cup triumph since 2003.
Robshaw is poised to join Johnson as England’s second longest serving captain at Twickenham tonight. It will be the openside’s 39th cap as captain – out of 40 appearances – and only Will Carling (59) has led England more times.
Despite the Harlequins flanker being Stuart Lancaster’s first choice since he was appointed as England captain at the age of 25 with just one cap in January 2012, Robshaw’s leadership, and even his place, have come under intense scrutiny on several occasions.
However, the man who captained England to their sole World Cup win in Australia 12 years ago says Robshaw has shown enough character and determination to become one of the great captains. Johnson said: “He was put in there at a very young age and when he was inexperienced, but has done a great job.
“He had some tough calls – those really tough captaincy decisions to make early in his career around 2012. He got a bit of criticism and had people knock him, and people tell him this should happen and that should happen, but he has got on with it. He has been there and played consistently for England and been through what we all go through when we play Test matches – some great wins and some disappointing defeats.
“We have all done that – Will Carling, Johnson, [Lawrence] Dallaglio – all the captains have done that, and he is still there doing well. I think we should get behind him and look forward to the tournament.”
Johnson, who was England manager at the 2011 World Cup, gave Robshaw his international debut two years earlier, having first identified his talent when he was playing on the blindside for Harlequins. “Chris was a six when I first got the job,” said Johnson, who returned to coaching in July to take a three-day camp at Maidenhead Rugby Club as part of Samsung’s school of rugby.
“Will Skinner was playing seven at Harlequins. John Wells and myself had a conversation with Dean [Richards, then the club’s director of rugby] and we said that if he was going to play Test rugby it was not going to be at six, because he is more of a seven at Test level. We picked him in 2009 and he actually played six in Argentina [during the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.]”
Johnson did not select Robshaw for the World Cup in New Zealand because of the competition from the then England captain Lewis Moody, Tom Croft, Nick Easter and current World Cup players Tom Wood and James Haskell. He admitted that it was not a “black and white decision”.
“At that point he [Robshaw] wasn’t making the team,” Johnson said. “He had two guys who had a lot more international experience than him – Lewis was captain and playing really well at seven at the time. Then the other players we had – Tom Croft was a British Lion, Tom Wood covered that Croft position and we had Nick Easter at No 8, and James could cover everywhere.
“Also we only had a squad of 30 and we had to take five props, given the injury history of some of our props at that point. Being so far away we felt we couldn’t take just four props.
“It squeezed a position and those decisions are never quite black and white. At that point our back row was Tom Croft, Nick and Lewis, so it was well balanced and we had just won the championship.”
What impressed the former England manager was Robshaw’s response to being left out, which revealed that he had the right qualities to be captain. “Chris was a promising player and we knew he was a good character. He was frustrated and he thought, ‘What do I have to do?’
“But he had the opportunity. He came up to our training camp and it was pretty competitive and he missed out. But like I said to a number of players at that point, it is your first knock that you have had in your career, and if you can’t handle it, then you are not going to go very far.
“Chris did the right thing, he got on with it, forced his way into the team and now he has got 40 caps, so good on him. I am not saying I was definitely right with that call, but that’s the way we saw it at that point. Good on him. If he said, ‘Stuff you Johnno, I will show you’, then great. That is exactly what you want him to do.”
Tight call: Martin Johnson says it was a tough decision to omit Chris Robshaw