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

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 -

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

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