How struggles in the classroom forged determined leader
England’s captain is short on Churchillian rhetoric but long on honesty, hard work, improvement and humility, those who know him best tell Jim White
If Jon Brimacombe had been offered a bet that the gangly, blond-haired lad charging headlong into a ruck for his school under-14 team would, 15 years later, be leading his country out in a home Rugby World Cup, there is not a chance the coach at Millfield School would have taken it.
“I have to admit I just didn’t see he had it in him to become captain of England, I really didn’t,” Brimacombe says. “He was an incredibly keen, dedicated, wholehearted young man; a wonderful lad. But future England captain? No, couldn’t see it.”
Tonight Chris Robshaw will lead out England for their opening World Cup fixture against Fiji, carrying the expectation of the rugby-playing nation on his broad shoulders. Which is some elevation for the earnest, keen but not overtly gifted young man whom the school rugby coach first encountered bulldozing his way across the Somerset turf.
“Of course, now I can see why England want him,” Brimacombe says. “They want him for his integrity, honesty, enthusiasm, and the respect he’s held in by peers. All that was there as a 14-year-old. It was just the rugby-playing bit that wasn’t quite there. Back then, there were plenty of his contemporaries who were way ahead of him on that score.”
Indeed, it is in the manner in which he has overtaken all of those reckoned better than him that gives a clue to Robshaw’s make-up. This is not someone whose talent shone the moment he picked up a ball and ran with it. In fact, that first time, he probably dropped it. Rather, this is a player who has worked, worked and worked again to improve. And is still working.
“I’m really proud of him as a bloke, his success has not changed him a jot,” says Conor O’Shea, the director of rugby at Robshaw’s club, Harlequins. “We’ve all got an ego, but he is the most ego-free person that I have ever come across. He really is an incredibly determined individual.”
Raised in Croydon, Robshaw first threw a rugby ball around with his two brothers at Warlingham RFC. But when, at the age of seven, he enrolled at the sporting hothouse Millfield it was more for academic than athletic reasons. This is a school which specialises in assisting children with dyslexia. Robshaw struggled with the condition and rugby was seen by his teachers as part of the solution.
“Millfield was founded with the aim of finding something our pupils can excel at and using that as a vehicle to build the confidence to enable them to tackle things they are not so good at,” Brimacombe says. “Chris found studies incredibly difficult. But he had rugby. It boosted his confidence. What I remember most about him was the extreme enjoyment he derived from playing. Everything just fell away on the rugby pitch.”
There was much to fall away. Robshaw did not have the most gilded childhood. His father died when he was just four years old, and his mother, a nurse who ran care homes, was obliged to work all hours to support her three sons. Yet most of those involved in his education were unaware of his personal circumstance; from an early age, he was a boy with a fundamental aversion to an excuse.
“I don’t think I knew about his loss until much later,” Brimacombe recalls. “It was just never an issue. I
Broad shoulders: Chris Robshaw leads his team by example remember having chats with his housemaster about him and agreeing what a wonderful lad he was, no one worked harder. It would be a fib to pretend all our pupils are like Chris. You just wish they were.”
His approach to his sport was, in part, a response to the manner he was regarded within it. He played in the same Millfield team as Anthony Allen and Olly Morgan, two future professionals whose early promise drew a stream of scouts to school games. When his teachers mentioned Robshaw to such visitors, however, the reaction was always the same.
“The feedback we got was they recognised his skill set, but there was something missing here, something missing there,” Brimacombe says. “There was invariably this idea he can’t do this, he can’t do that, rather than an acknowledgement of what he could do.”
Tellingly, such insistent critique did not discourage Robshaw. Rather it acted as a spur. When told he was not quick enough he worked on his pace; when told his passing was ragged, he practised his offload. Not able to rely on natural aptitude, he was tireless in the search for self-improvement.
It is an attitude, those who work with him insist, which shapes his approach still. “If I sat him down and said you’re great at this that and the other, he’d say: ‘Fine, thanks, nice to hear’,” says John Kingston, the head coach at Harlequins. “But what he really wants to know is this: ‘What did I do wrong?’ ” By the time he left Millfield, Robshaw had worked on his deficiencies sufficiently to convince the doubters that he was worth a place in the England Under18 squad. His performances there earned him a contract at Harlequins.
But his arrival in the big time was stalled by a succession of injuries: he broke a metatarsal in his left foot, then the fibula in his right leg, then he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. His attitude to his setbacks impressed his employers sufficiently for them to keep him on despite a two-year absence.
“Nobody seeks adversity, but you could say adversity was what shaped him,” O’Shea says. “The thing about him is he is somehow able to deal with things and deal with them really well. He doesn’t let it affect him.”
When O’Shea arrived at Quins in 2010, it was that approach which inspired him to make Robshaw captain. He wanted someone to lead from the front. And the young flanker did that all right, quickly establishing a reputation for never asking his team-mates to do something he himself was not prepared to do. Ferocious, game and honest, he soon won over the dressing room.
Not that he was perfect. O’Shea recalls a game against London Irish early in Robshaw’s captaincy, when several senior players had succumbed to illness and were replaced by a bunch of youngsters.
“We lost and Chris got absolutely stuck into team in the dressing room afterwards. I took him aside and said: ‘Remember who you are talking to, these are young lads doing their best, it won’t help to hammer them like that’. He learned. I’ve never heard him speak like that again.”
The Robshaw learning curve was a steep one. Beyond Quins, the opinion of the wider rugby world seemed not to have changed since
‘Nobody seeks adversity but you could say that adversity has shaped him’
the sceptical scouts observed from the touchline at Millfield: his deficiencies were amplified, the focus was always on what he could not do, he was routinely dismissed as not a genuine No 7 but a No 6½. The reputation contributed to him not being selected for England’s 2011 World Cup squad or the 2013 Lions tour.
Typically, whatever the pain of high-profile rejection, those setbacks were taken by Robshaw as spurs to great self-improvement. After a short mope following 2011, he was thrust back by O’Shea into the fray. “Actually, missing out on 2011 allowed him to develop as captain out of the microscope,” O’Shea says. “And while he has been brilliant at coping with adversity, you look at any sports person who wants to be successful, they have to be; anybody who has not got that ability to respond will fail. No one has a smooth career. He had setbacks, his dad dying, injuries, not being picked. But you look at someone when they are in that situation, that’s when you know who they are.”
As it happened, soon after Robshaw’s 2011 snub, the new England coach Stuart Lancaster was looking to recalibrate his England side, reconnect it to the grass-roots game. For once, Robshaw was in the right place at the right time. Lancaster saw in the Quins skipper the kind of leader who would epitomise the new direction he wanted for the side: hard working, humble, straightforward. Soon after taking control, Lancaster made Robshaw the national team captain.
Not that it was an immediate success. In his first game in charge, he made a tactical error right at the death of a Test against South Africa, instructing Owen Farrell to go for goal from a penalty when England needed the points from a try to win. For a man who was picked for his leadership rather than his individual brilliance, it was seen as a crushing failure of purpose. “Captain Calamity” he was christened. Typically he learned from it.
“The hindsighters are always right,” O’Shea says. “I said to him after that: ‘Don’t worry about the result of your action, consider the thought process. If that was clear, don’t doubt, learn’. And he has.”
If not quite to the scale of the animated O2 television commercial running ahead of the World Cup, in which a giant cartoon Robshaw is seen stomping through the streets of London, there is no question that since that nervy debut he has grown into the England captaincy.
His belligerent refusal to be cowed in the tunnel before the game with Wales at the Millennium Stadium last spring was symptomatic of his quiet determination. He has the absolute trust and respect of team-mates and coaches alike. Plus, he has got much better at making a dressingroom speech, even trying his hand at stand-up comedy in an effort to hone his technique. His closing gag in the set was about his own dyslexia.
“He has become a lot better at the pre-match gee up,” O’Shea says. “Is he Winston Churchill? No. But when he speaks he speaks with real authority. In every respect he is so much a better captain now than when he first took over. And to be honest he was bloody good then.”
Exactly how good he is, we will soon discover. When it comes to a personal examination, Chris Robshaw is about to face the sternest test of his life.
Part Six tomorrow
The making of Richie McCaw, by Oliver Brown
Young gun: Chris Robshaw (centre) with Millfield School‘s England age-group players in 2004