The Breakdown | ‘It’s the scars I wear’: Chris Robshaw on England, leadership and what comes next

Reflecting on highs and lows of an 18-year career, the former England captain wants to use his experience to help others

Few understand the highs and lows of playing for England better than Chris Robshaw. Even now, after his retirement from the professional game at the age of 36, he still wonders aloud if everyone fully appreciates what it takes to represent your country. “People don’t realise how hard it is to be consistently at the top and to stay at the top,” he says, as the rain hammers down outside his London window.

If Eddie Jones and his England squad think they’ve had it tough from fans and media after recent poor results during the Autumn Nations Series, they should have been in Robshaw’s boots in 2015 when his team failed to make it past the pool stages at their home World Cup. “It’s the scars I wear, mate,” says Robshaw with a sigh. “It was the epitome of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. To lead your country out at a home World Cup … and then a couple of weeks later you’re knocked out.”

The then England captain attracted the wrath of the media and public, having to deal with constant looks and comments from strangers in restaurants and his local post office. Does he feel a sense of closure now? “To be honest, no. I’m not proud of how it went. And, more painfully, I never got the opportunity to put the wrongs right.

“I felt like I was in a fog and couldn’t really see out. But over time that fog has faded. It becomes clearer but it took a huge amount of time and a lot of shame. You wish decisions could have been made differently, but ultimately the buck stops with you. No matter what people say, you realise that you’re the one in charge. I would analyse things and play things over in my mind. I couldn’t escape it.”

Talk to any player, though, and Robshaw will forever be massively respected. I vividly recollect sitting in the East Stand at Twickenham as “Mr Consistent” led England to a historic win over New Zealand in 2012. I remember Robshaw playing every minute of the 2015 Six Nations and being one of England’s standout players, only for his team to lose out on the title to Ireland, by points difference, on the last day. It is sad that many seem to overlook the numerous achievements of a man who won 66 caps for England.

More recently a third shoulder dislocation in the space of 18 months, playing for San Diego Legion in America’s Major League Rugby, proved to be the final straw for Robshaw’s 18-year career. Although more known for his 300 appearances in a Harlequins shirt, and a bar at the Stoop named after him, the back-rower remains grateful for the two seasons he spent in the USA.

“My injuries weren’t great, but I loved California,” says Robshaw, smiling. “The people were so friendly and for my wife [Camilla] and I, it was so different to how we lived life back home. I went from driving up and down the A3 from Wandsworth to Guildford to cruising around on an electric bike. I’d go to the beach after training and just watch the sunset and chill. It refreshed my mindset on rugby. It made me happy.”

Chris Robshaw acknowledges the fans after the conclusion of England’s 2015 World Cup campaign, from which he still has no closure.
Chris Robshaw acknowledges the fans after the conclusion of England’s 2015 World Cup campaign, from which he still has no closure. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Rex/Shutterstock

As he re-acclimatises to the cold and damp of a British winter, there has also been more time to reflect on the good times he enjoyed as a player. He was a trusted leader, first captaining Quins as early as 2009 and becoming England captain only a few years later. He was a figurehead you could count on, both in actions and in voice. At San Diego, where we were teammates, he treated everyone as equals, whether you were a two-time World Cup winner such as Ma’a Nonu or a recent draft pick out of college. A straight talker who led by example, even at the back end of his career.

There may be less of him physically these days – “I’ve lost 6-7kg from not training as hard or eating as rigorously as I was” – but no one can diminish his accomplishments, often under adversity. “I’m extremely proud,” reflects Robshaw, who was twice named Premiership player of the year, in 2009 and 2012, and captained Harlequins to European Challenge Cup glory in 2011 and a first Premiership title in 2012. “It only sinks in when people read your stats back and mention the achievements and challenges you’ve been through.

“Being given the captaincy for Quins at 23 was something that I enjoyed but it was mentally tough. At times it felt lonely and, looking back, I probably detached myself from others. As a captain you want to perform on the pitch and get the best out of your teammates.

“l was fortunate that I was surrounded by good people. All captains need that. Looking back at those titles we benefited from a young playing group – the likes of myself, Danny Care, Mike Brown, Ugo Monye and Joe Marler to name but a few – plus a sprinkling of stardust from the likes of Nick Evans and Nick Easter.

“My biggest disappointment as a club was that we didn’t kick on. It’s as if we set the standard and then let everyone else overtake us and never catch up. I guess clubs have their cycles and I hope now the club, with the likes of Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt, can kick on after their recent Premiership success a couple of years ago.”

He would also love to see England enjoy a successful 2023 World Cup but is now looking for a new challenge. “That may be in rugby down the line. There are a couple of conversations happening behind closed doors.” In particular he is keen to use the pain of the past in a positive way. “I want to help others,” he stresses. “Helping those that potentially might be going through, or have gone through, tough situations.”

Chris Robshaw lifts the Premiership title in 2012
One of the highlights of Robshaw’s club career was lifting the Premiership title in 2012. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Seconds Left/Shutterstock

It explains why he and his wife are launching the Kerslake Robshaw Foundation on Wednesday 30 November, with a gala dinner at London’s Hurlingham Club. “Our aim is to empower young lives, from tough economic backgrounds, through music and sport. For us it’s about giving back and if we can help some kids and young lives then brilliant.” As our conversation draws to a close, the former England captain seems to be heading into the retirement sunset with a genuine sense of purpose.

Contributor

Will Hooley

The GuardianTramp

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