Chris Robshaw seemed to have it all last December. He had just captained England to victory over New Zealand, his club Harlequins were mounting a strong defence of the Premiership title and he was seen by many as the outstanding candidate to lead the Lions in Australia.
He may end the European season with nothing. He failed to make the Lions’ squad, never mind being made captain, he was this week left out of the England squad for the tour to Argentina – the word employed was rested, so often used euphemistically in that context – and Harlequins need to win at Leicester on Saturday to make the Premiership final at Twickenham.
The fickleness of fate. Sam Warburton will lead the Lions, but after the first round of the Six Nations, when Wales lost at home to Ireland, there were calls for him to be dropped from the side. He did not play in the following match against France because of a shoulder injury and in the third round he was on the bench.
It had only been six months since Warburton had been regarded as the nailed-on Lions captain having led Wales to the grand slam and it was reported that when the Lions coaches had their first meeting after the start of the Six Nations, 19 England players were pencilled in.
If England started this year’s Six Nations in top gear and finished in reverse, Wales did the opposite and it was they who formed the largest contingent in the Lions’ 37. Warren Gatland had said when he was named as the tourists’ head coach last September that he would take more notice of how the Six Nations performed in the autumn internationals against the Rugby Championship sides than against each other, France and Italy, but Wales’s victory over England counted for a lot more than England’s over the All Blacks.
Gatland made the point that Warburton had the ear of the referee Steve Walsh against England even though he was not Wales’s captain. He did not comment when it was suggested that Robshaw, even though his side were conceding the bulk of the penalties at the scrum and the breakdown, was treated dismissively.
Robshaw’s captaincy was questioned in November when he dithered over his options after England were awarded late penalties against Australia and South Africa as they chased the games, but if there was not a compelling case for him to lead the Lions, his omission from the squad made less sense.
The Lions had an abundance of options in the back row, but they overlooked all three players who started there for England against New Zealand: Robshaw, Tom Wood and the No 8 Ben Morgan. The first two played at a consistently high standard in the Six Nations, but England’s decline as an attacking force coincided with the injury to Morgan in the opening game against Scotland that ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.
Wood will lead England in Argentina with the England head coach Stuart Lancaster saying that Robshaw would be given no assurances about the captaincy next season. Just as Gatland wanted his open-side flankers to be fetchers, so Lancaster has the likes of Matt Kvesic and Will Fraser coming through to put pressure on Robshaw who can play on the blind-side, along with Wood, Tom Croft and James Haskell.
Robshaw may not have won many turnovers in the Six Nations, but he was their leading carrier and top tackler. He led from the front selflessly, a quality that is usually coveted by Lions’ coaches, never one to put himself before the team.
He would not have sulked had he found himself playing for the midweek side four days before the first Test, just as he kept going in Cardiff long after the game had slipped from England’s grasp. As Conor O’Shea, the Harlequins’ director of rugby said this week, some players less deserving than Robshaw will be flying to Australia.
Selection is about opinion, but it depends on timing. Had England gone to Wales at the start of the Six Nations rather than the end, they would probably have won. Had the Lions squad been named at the end of December, Robshaw would very probably have been in the squad.
The wheel turns and it will come Robshaw’s way again, just as it did for Warburton.
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