It is tough not to at least feel somewhat sorry for Chris Robshaw this week.
Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of words have been written about his decision to go to the corner rather than take a shot at the points against Wales. It is a measure of the man that after the game he fronted up and welcomed that.
Has it been right just to single out that one decision though? Leadership is not just about those key obvious decisions, but about decision making in your discipline, your positioning, your communication. Essentially about leading the way in terms of how you go about taking on the challenge of the game.
England have a leadership group specifically for that reason and for all of the collective parts of the game that make up those small decisions. Looking at who was on the field, that leadership group consisted of Brad Barritt (defensive leader), Geoff Parling (lineout leader), Owen Farrell (fly-half/goalkicker), George Ford (fly half), Tom Wood (Robshaw’s no2), and of course Robshaw, the captain.
The decision making of all of these players, perhaps with the exception of Ford, was off and they all bear a collective responsibility for allowing a game that should, frankly, have been comfortably won, given the position, to slip.
Tom Wood gave away too many penalties at the breakdown, and in kickable areas too. This was despite the fact that throughout the game England actually looked comfortable in defence, if they could only have kept their discipline. Wood should be leading the way there, yet was one of the more culpable. It actually was difficult to remember one truly threatening Welsh attack bar the try but this ill-disciplined breakdown work paved the way for the later heartbreak.
To that try scoring attack, where Brad Barritt was caught out of position. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but if we are looking at decision-making, he should have made that decision better, that is his area of expertise.
Then to that lineout call. Robshaw, ultimately, makes that call. As he should. But why was Owen Farrell, as his goalkicker and part of the leadership group, not screaming at him that he wanted to go for the sticks? We know that Farrell is not exactly shy of speaking up and speaking out, it is why fans love him, so he must bear some responsibility for that call.
Once the call was made though, it was about execution. It is here that Geoff Parling’s decision making has to be called in to question. It is his responsibility to call the line out. It is possible that Robshaw called for it to go to him, but in England’s system, surely Parling has the right to overrule – what is the point in a leadership group if ultimately people are actually not responsible for their collective domains?
With himself, Launchbury, and Wood on the pitch, he had three top lineout guys. The ball should have been going to one of them. It should also not have been going to the front. Parling knows that and let his skipper down by making a poor decision.
So yes, as captain Robshaw bears ultimate responsibility. However his leadership group’s collective poor leadership in their decision-making through the game is what cost England in reality. Individually every poor call might seem small, and they are, but add them all together and it loses you the game.
Is it really so bad to be caught out of position once? To give away a couple of penalties? To back your teammates to score? No. Added together though, you get a different answer.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is that rugby is all about the team. Winning and losing as a team is not a cliché, it is a fact – as all of this shows. Yes, as captain Robshaw bears the ultimate responsibility. But let’s not pretend that it was an individual failure.
On the plus side, it just adds to the excitement of this most open and competitive of World Cups, and with tickets still available for many of the games (see here – World Cup Tickets) there is still plenty of opportunity to be a part of that excitement.
If there is one thing we know, it is that Robshaw will front up before, during, and after Australia on Saturday. We can’t wait to see it unfold.