Robshaw set for backlash
Published 05/02/2013 | 04:00
The wheels of the approaching chariot may sound like thunder in the sky, but a gentle chill seems to burrow into Chris Robshaw's bones as he contemplates a February Sunday in Dublin.
"Whenever you play Ireland – especially in Ireland – it's always emotional and passionate and very intense," said Robshaw. "I'd imagine this game will be exactly the same. I'm sure there will be a backlash from last year.
"In that game, we had a lot of dominance in the scrum, which put us on the front foot. They had an injury early on (Mike Ross) and our front-row were brilliant on the day. We're expecting it to be pretty tough this time."
After Italy's remarkable defeat of France in Rome on Sunday, many see the game at Lansdowne as a potential championship decider. And England carry arguably the most compelling form of any rugby team on the planet today, having followed November's sensational 38-21 defeat of the All Blacks with a clinical 20-point mauling of Scotland last Saturday.
They have gelled into a formidably efficient unit under the leadership of Stuart Lancaster and, after a difficult start, the captaincy of the Harlequins open-side.
Robshaw was criticised for his decision-making after narrow autumn defeats to Australia and South Africa, some calling into question Lancaster's choice of appointing a relative international novice as England captain.
But the English have been on fire since and their young No 7 is, again, being touted as a potential Lions captain for the summer tour to Australia.
Yet, given Brian O'Driscoll's man-of-the-match display against Wales in Cardiff, this weekend's game might also be billed as a possible shoot-out between two men thought to be front runners in Warren Gatland's thoughts for his on-field leader Down Under.
Robshaw makes no attempt to conceal his admiration for O'Driscoll. He suggests the Irish No 13 and his regular midfield partner, Gordon D'Arcy, to be "two of the best" in international rugby.
"You look at those two and they are incredible over the ball," he observes. "It's about what works well for the team and finding it. Brian brings his carrying and physicality in those aspects. The Irish love that hold-up tackle, which is annoying to play against.
"They are so good at that. No matter which Irish provincial team you play, they are all the same – incredibly good at holding you up."
Some of the more seasoned men in white will be particularly mindful of O'Driscoll's extraordinary performance against them at Croke Park in 2009, when he almost single-handedly kept the Grand Slam dream alive with a try and drop-goal in Ireland's 14-13 win.
Two years later, a Martin Johnson-coached side returned to Dublin in search of a Slam of their own only to be devoured 24-8. The subsequent leaking of a pre-made Nike ad, trumpeting them as 'Grand Slam champions 2011', just added to England's mortification.
But Lancaster's management style looks to have instilled some semblance of humility in the English psyche now.
"Stuart's been brilliant," says Robshaw. "I think you learn from your experiences and from other guys you play against. You learn from stuff you got right and stuff you maybe didn't get quite so right. He's created this culture – and he's got a great coaching squad around him – where players feel comfortable when they come in.
"I mean you look at Joe Launchbury in the autumn. He came in and just played his normal game. That's what you want. You want people doing what they do at their club."
Robshaw admits that he endured difficult personal moments prior to the New Zealand win, particularly after his call to kick a late penalty against South Africa drew such scornful media attention. "It wasn't until I came in the next day that I really realised the character of the guys in the England squad at the moment," he recalls now.
"They just said: 'Don't worry, we'll win this weekend – it'll be alright'. They were brilliant about the whole thing."
Devouring the All Blacks one week later has transformed the communal psyche since. "I think it's been massive," he suggests. "We had a kind of debrief the Sunday morning after the game and everyone wanted another game the following weekend.
"That's our benchmark now. Everyone has said it: 'This is where we want to be. They're the standards'. We need to achieve it again and again and, within the group, that's the challenge now.
"That New Zealand game was our standard. It was an incredible day, but we've got to move forward now. It's an exciting time for English rugby I think."
Pointedly, Gatland has referred to a dearth of natural No 7s in the northern hemisphere just now, suggesting the likes of Robshaw and others to be "more six and a halves". This description, presumably, could also apply to Ireland's No 7 in Cardiff last weekend, Sean O'Brien.
Robshaw is fulsome in his praise of the Carlow man and, indeed, the Irish back-row in general. "They are awesome," he says emphatically. "Look at O'Brien with his physicality and his work on the floor. And (Jamie) Heaslip's carrying. They have that intensity which good back-rows have.
"They are incredible. They've been there a few years now and have that experience. What they do well is they have a good balance to the back-row. And that's what it's all about."
With France having drifted to 7/1 for this year's championship, the victor of Sunday's game will have taken a giant leap towards the Six Nations title. England finished second with a new-look side last season and, palpably, believe they are ready to take that extra step.
As captain, Robshaw believes they may be building towards something special. "Stuart's been very open about the leadership group he has," he says of the England coach. "Last year, we were new players, new coaches, all this kind of stuff. Now we've got more experience.
"You look at Dylan (Hartley) who is a club captain and can come in and boss the forwards and be a pack leader. Ben Foden, Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell – these guys are so influential.
"It's about having that core group that can help drive the squad. When there is a hard decision to be made, if one of these guys makes it, we'll back each other. It might not be a popular decision, but these are the things that captains and leaders have to do."
No threat of a Nike ad being pre-arranged with this England.