New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw has offered support to Chris Robshaw by backing his captaincy and credentials as an openside.
Robshaw faces the final assignment of a traumatic autumn today when England come up against the world champion All Blacks at Twickenham. In presiding over frustrating defeats to Australia and South Africa, Robshaw’s decision-making has been questioned by team-mates on the pitch and criticised by pundits off it. Furthermore, his suitability to wear the number seven jersey has been challenged, most notably by Lions coach Warren Gatland.
But 115-cap veteran McCaw believes the 26-year-old can only benefit from his recent ordeal and views him as a legitimate openside.
“The best way to learn as a captain is to go through those experiences,” the Crusaders flanker said. “There’s no doubt he’ll be better off having been through tight matches. I’ve had that myself over the years. The key to leading is being able to make the right decisions when it counts. But the right decision is not clear all the time, so to say something was right or wrong, it’s easy in hindsight.
“The best way to learn is on the job. I feel he’ll have learnt along the way. He’s playing particularly well. People ask if seven’s the right position for him, but these days you pick the right mix of loose forwards for your team. You must have a bit of everything, rather than be an out and out six, seven or eight.
“If you can have a mix of players who can do all the jobs then that’s best for the team. That’s obviously how their back row is working. I’ve been pretty impressed with the way he’s gone.”
While Robshaw will welcome sympathetic words from such a highly-regarded player, he can expect no charity at Twickenham today. The All Blacks are targeting a tenth successive win over England that will enable McCaw to reflect on an unbeaten year when he begins his six-month sabbatical next month.
It has been a remarkable 14 months for New Zealand dating back to last autumn’s World Cup triumph and the gap between themselves and their Test rivals is wider than ever. Setting the tone is the enduring brilliance of perennial IRB player of the year nominee McCaw, who hopes to return to England as All Blacks skipper for the 2015 World Cup.
“Over the years I’ve always prided myself on being as consistent as I can,” he said. “I look back on this year and feel like I’ve been reasonably consistent. There are different parts of my game that have been a lot better. I’ve added a bit of extra size this year and that’s helped with the physical impact side of things.”
McCaw played through the pain barrier at last year’s World Cup due to a foot injury, but has remained fit throughout this season. “Physically I’m in pretty good shape right now. It took a while but it came right,” he said. “From a mental point of view this year hasn’t been a drag, it’s been a challenge that I’ve enjoyed. The guys realise that if we get the job right on Saturday, it will reflect on a pretty good year. If we don’t then all the hard work we’ve done we’ll look at through a slightly different lens.”
Robshaw himself admitted he has learned some hard lessons about the pressures of international rugby over the last week.
“It has been different to previous weeks and it has made me really appreciate the players and coaches and the backroom staff that we have in this squad at the moment,” Robshaw said. “Everyone has been terrific. There have been a lot of lessons for myself to learn and move forward, whether it is decision-making or other things on the pitch. Over the last couple of weeks, myself and the other players have learned a lot about international rugby. We have learned the hard way and unfortunately that happens in sport. We have to take those lessons and look forward. We can’t be dwelling on what happened the last couple of weeks.”
England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins); O Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester). Subs: D Paice (London Irish), D Wilson (Bath), M Vunipola (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), F Burns (Gloucester), J Joseph (London Irish).
New Zealand: I Dagg; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; D Carter, A Smith; T Woodcock, K Mealamu, O Franks, B Retallick, S Whitelock, L Messam, R McCaw (capt), K Read. Subs: D Coles, W Crockett, C Faumuina, L Romano, V Vito, P Weepu, A Cruden, B Smith.
Referee: G Clancy (Ire).