Chris Robshaw's brilliant breakdown performance in England's 26-17 win over Australia should have finally silenced his remaining doubters. We pick out the highlights of his display.
A trivia question to start, so no cheating if you do not know the answer. Here you go: who said this about whom last week?
“He’s an absolute pest. Last year he had a really good performance against us around the ruck and made it a really tough night for us.”
There is not much point in building suspense. This was Australia skipper Michael Hooper, arguably the best pilfering openside on the planet, speaking about Chris Robshaw, a figure many still do not rate as a ‘proper seven’ – whatever that vague, fluffy phrase even means.
And the outstanding Wallaby should know. While he has caused total havoc consistently throughout his young but brilliant Test career, two of his least effective games have come against England. Twelve months ago, Hooper was crowded into anonymity as the hosts triumphed 20-13 at Twickenham. Robshaw won the official man-of-the-match gong.
On Saturday, he latched on for an early penalty and charged around athletically. However, he was comprehensively outdone by the England back row. Tom Wood was relentless, Ben Morgan barged to a brace of tries and Robshaw seemed utterly inspired when the ball was on the ground. Here is a run-down of his awesome afternoon.
England 0-0 Australia, 1 minute: Early set-back
Even accounting for the fact that England survived on grisly scraps – just 34 per cent of possession over the 80 minutes – the fact that they only had 36 rucks is amazing. By comparison, Australia’s commitment to keeping ball in hand saw them get through 112.
In any case, it is significant that Robshaw carries for this first turnover. Of course, that means he is not there to secure the ruck. Billy Twelvetrees does not identify the threat of Hooper and clears Rob Horne instead. By the time Dylan Hartley and David Wilson arrive, it is too late. Following this false start, England tightened up markedly at the breakdown with Robshaw driving the standards.
England 0-3 Australia, 4 minutes: Linking attack
Field position meant England could show some early spark and they went through the phases nicely. Robshaw’s slip pass to Wood here is a trademark piece of skill. This is his bread and butter. He is so good at transferring the point of contact to unbalance defenders. Watch how the excellent Matt Toomua must adjust and an overlap is created momentarily:
A punchy carry to challenge the fringes from the next ruck demonstrates Robshaw’s appetite for work in attack. England moved the ball left from here and won a penalty to level the scores. They spent long, long periods soaking up pressure from there, but their skipper stood firm.
England 6-3 Australia, 25 minutes: Toomua turned over
During the summer he spent at home while the 2013 Lions were touring, Robshaw sought out Australian forwards guru Laurie Fisher – the mentor of turnover pioneer and legendary Wallaby centurion George Smith – for tips on how best to improve his defensive breakdown skills.
Here, the Harlequin stalks before Wilson makes the tackle. He then strikes and stays strong over the ball despite the dual challenge of Rob Simmons and James Slipper, who stack up to a combined weight of 232 kilograms. It is a copybook piece of work.
England 6-3 Australia, 28 minutes: Rapid ruck-clear for Morgan’s try
The roles of Wood and Morgan are easily more eye-catching here. Certainly, Wood’s slip pass is gorgeous and Morgan’s finish muscular. That said, the try comes about because of the speed of the breakdown following Barritt’s carry. Guess who helps secure the ball:
As Morgan and Wood snake around the corner, Robshaw helps Anthony Watson secure possession and Ben Youngs can whip his pass away before the Australian line is set. It is a subtle but essential job – a hallmark of a fine openside flanker.
England 13-3 Australia, 34 minutes: Phipps disrupted
Scrum-half Nick Phipps has personified the Wallabies’ admirable ambition this tour. Incredibly, he did not kick the ball once over five matches. His long, strong passing game is integral to the pacy, wide way Cheika wants to play. Here though, Robshaw is quick to fire through and forces the ball loose.
It was nearly a try-scoring turnover too. Youngs hits a clever kick from the box and Watson and Brown win the chase, but neither can gather:
England 13-3 Australia, 38 minutes: Another penalty earned
The most effective proponents of the ‘jackal’ – the art of crouching over the ball and forcing the player on the floor to be penalised for holding on – generate a collective anxiety among the opposition.
Rivals always have Hooper, Richie McCaw and Peter O’Mahony in the back of their minds on attack. Austin Healey has admitted that one England squad member wore a ‘Brian O’Driscoll bib’ for the training week leading up to Ireland matches and spent rucking drills purposely misbehaving.
Here, the knock-on effect of Robshaw’s excellent first-half is evident as Sam Carter clears him out from the side illegally. Before that though, we see the England captain’s innate desire and work ethic as he leads the line:
Andy Farrell is less fussed about dog legs and spacing than he is about putting pressure on carriers – he calls his defensive system a ‘messy’ one and it is focussed on disruption.
Sean McMahon actually steps past Robshaw, but Wood makes a superb chop tackle. Robshaw wheels around to threaten the ruck and Carter, clearly fretting about the prospect of another turnover, rushes into an unlawful clear-out:
England 13-3 Australia, 54 minutes: Rescue act
Into the second half now and the midst of Australia’s strongest period. Here, they probe the wide channel and the Wood-Robshaw combination strikes with a tackle-turnover once more. However, most impressive is what happens a phase earlier.
Breakdowns are about decision-making as much as anything else – not hitting the beach at every ruck but picking your moments. Watch Ben Alexander’s carry again. Robshaw thinks about committing, but bails out and evades McMahon’s clear-out so he can stay on his feet:
It is a selfless option that pays dividends seconds later.
England 20-10 Australia, 58 minutes: Reception committee
Tackle counts are a big part of what makes Robshaw a special player. Put simply, his engine is astounding. On Saturday he felled 14 runners, but this one is about quality rather than quantity.
Will Skelton, a 140-kilogram lock has just come on. Australia look to get him into the game right away but Robshaw leads by example and cuts off the Waratahs behemoth behind the gain-line. Skelton scored a few phases later, but the sentiment remains admirable.
Israel Folau and Hooper outstrip Robshaw comfortably in pursuit of Owen Farrell’s hack through. Even so, this clip epitomises industriousness, especially given everything that had gone on before.
England 23-17 Australia, 74 minutes: Suffocating Australia
This autumn, Graham Rowntree’s pack has reinforced its class. In fact, England probably possess the best tight-five options in the world right now. The lineout maul is definitely on a par with South Africa’s for consistent destruction.
This one rumbled over the Wallaby 10-metre line and England then won the match-clinching penalty out wide. You can probably guess who spearheaded the charge:
Maggie Alphonsi, another England openside, lives by the motto “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Since being left out of the 2011 World Cup party by Martin Johnson, Robshaw has embodied that.
The development he has undergone over his 32 caps thus far has been pretty amazing to watch. This weekend was his most influential Test as a breakdown scavenger, something he has worked hard at improving on.
Regardless of the considerable talents of contenders Steffon Armitage, Will Fraser and Matt Kvesic – plus the fact that England’s skipper could play at six as well– it is lunacy to slap the lazy ‘not a proper seven’ label on Robshaw. Hopefully those calls finally dry up with this fantastic performance.