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'A very dark time': Robshaw 11 months on from his Barbarians gaffe

By Liam Heagney
Chris Robshaw and Camilla Kerslake are seen leaving The GQ Men Of The Year Awards After Party (Photo by DAN/MEGA/GC Images

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Ex-England skipper Chris Robshaw spoke from the heart when he quipped to RugbyPass how “a lot has changed since then” when reminded that the last time he did a one-to-one interview with us was at the November 2019 Heineken Champions Cup launch which took place at the Principality Stadium. Never mind the pandemic bringing the world to a halt in the 22 months since then, life for the 35-year-old has changed quite dramatically. 

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He left Harlequins, the club that was all the Londoner had known since debuting in 2007, moved to the American west coast, became a first-time father and wallowed from afar in the warm, fuzzy glow of seeing his old Quins pals swaggering their way to a first Premiership title since 2012. Then there was the horrible downside, his involvement in the drinking shenanigans that resulted in the Barbarians’ match versus England at Twickenham getting cancelled due to breaches of the invitational team’s bubble.  

An RFU investigation found that Robshaw had gone out socialising two nights in succession and the resulting punishment was 50 hours of unpaid community work. But here’s the rub: as mortifying as the experience was of being among the group blamed for the embarrassing cancellation, the post-hearing shake-down is something that even now has him in useful discussions with Bill Sweeney, the English rugby CEO. For that he is thankful.   

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What happened when RugbyPass went behind the scenes at the Barbarians
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What happened when RugbyPass went behind the scenes at the Barbarians

“Of course, massively not proud of that (match cancellation) and that was a very dark time for myself and all the other twelve guys involved,” admitted Robshaw to RugbyPass. “It was tough. We shouldn’t have done what we did, we got our punishment and we have moved forward… I’m in a much better place now.

“But on the punishment, we got a lot of community work and I’m actually in talks with Bill Sweeney about instead of just giving guys match bans (for indiscipline in the English game), can we not bring in this community work so you have to do a certain amount of time? 

“Whenever I have been to a club it has been great for me personally because I find as a player, and especially when you get to that top level, you are busy and you don’t go to the grassroots clubs a lot, you might lose a little bit of touch with it. We don’t say we don’t, but realistically we unfortunately do and the lift it [community work] gives clubs is phenomenal. 

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“I use an example: if you look at when Owen Farrell got banned for his high tackle a couple of seasons ago, you couldn’t tell there is one community club in the country that wouldn’t snap their arm off to get him down for a couple of hours to do a kicking session. I’m in talks with him [Sweeney] about how that process can change because the benefit has been great both for clubs and myself.”

The Barbarians game was to be England’s first match since the lockdown and a rehearsal for their Six Nations title decider versus Italy the following week. Eddie Jones was angry that his players didn’t get the planned run-out, claiming rugby had been reduced to a laughing stock, but it seemingly hasn’t driven a wedge between the coach and Robshaw, his 2016 and 2017 title-winning back-rower.

“I was actually at Pennyhill Park on Tuesday. I was looking for him and I saw his wife and his little dog. We get the odd message. I’m going to drop him a message and reach out to him because he was actually supposed to come to San Diego. He was a consultant coach but unfortunately with Covid and everything going on he couldn’t make it, but we reach out every now and then.

“I have got a huge amount of respect for Eddie. Eddie gave me my second chance. Of course, I would have always loved to go to that 2019 World Cup but you look at the abilities of (Tom) Curry, (Sam) Underhill and how good they were. But no, I have got a huge amount of respect for Eddie and admiration for him.” 

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It was just a matter of weeks before the Barbarians disaster that Robshaw played his last game for Harlequins, grabbing an away win at Leicester in the final round of the delayed 2019/20 season. That confirmed a sixth-place finish for the inconsistent Londoners, but just eight months later they won the whole shooting match and were crowned champions in the most exhilarating fashion.

You imagine Robshaw would have pangs of regret that he stopped at the club a season too early and couldn’t add to his medal collection, but he isn’t wired that way at all. Instead, he revelled in the joy of the occasion and celebrated it for what it was worth. “I was watching it in my flat in San Diego,” he said when asked for his recollection of that seminal June day for his former team. 

“As sportspeople you know (when it’s time to go). I was so proud of the team. Quins sent me a load of kit and I had my little boy in it. I was jealous I couldn’t be there, I was jealous I couldn’t be supporting. My family went. My friends were all there. They all went back to The Stoop after to drink and celebrate. 

“You see how hard these guys work, especially where they came from. And look, it wasn’t the right time for me to be there. We all have a different path and different things come up. You look at how good Will Evans was that year until his injury. Look at how good Jack Kenningham has been since he started playing, getting called up into the England squad. I remember when I was speaking to the club when I was making my decision what to do and I was the oldest back row by eight years. 

“I just thought about the age group and stuff and it felt time. We all have our time and for me, it was important to leave the shirt in a better place and I hope I did that throughout my time at the club and helped the club move forward. Unfortunately, this wasn’t my journey anymore but these guys were incredible. I spoke to (Joe) Marler and Danny (Care), people like that, about how it went and I was so proud of them. Like I said, jealous I couldn’t have a couple of beers with them, but I FaceTimed a couple of them and had a couple of beers over FaceTime.”

The trick now for Harlequins is to do it all over again and Robshaw reckons the installation of Tabai Matson as head of rugby will be important in helping his old club to enjoy a credible title defence where his expectation is a semi-final appearance at the very least. “They were brilliant in terms of the attacking ability, a joy to watch, especially in the late parts of the season when winning tight games. 

“But bringing in a new man at the top is a great addition. They have brought in some great players as well to help evolve the team because the biggest mistake when you get to this level and win something is to do exactly the same thing again. Unfortunately, other teams catch up, other teams evolve, other teams are always looking for an angle. With Harlequins bringing in someone new at the top, he is going to do that. 

“He is of course going to have a say in Harlequins’ philosophy and the game plan and all that, but he is going to bring in a lot of his ideas and give a real freshness to that squad. You are there to be shot at when you are the champions. This is also where the experience of Jerry Flannery and Adam Jones comes in about winning Grand Slams, winning Heineken Cup with Munster, all this about how do you do it again, how do you continue to evolve? That is one of the hardest things. It’s easy to win but how do you keep winning?”

Robshaw is intrigued with how the bookies have hyped up the return of promoted Saracens. “Favourites already? Wow. They are going to be in the top four, no doubt. It will be interesting to see how many games they miss their big players for. A lot of them can’t play for a while because of the Lions and then a lot of them are going to go away because of the England games in the autumn and the Six Nations. 

“It just depends on how that affects them. They will be in the top four. Leicester are going to go really well. Ellis Genge coming in (as captain) he is going to give them that old school Leicester mentality. Jasper Wiese is in there as well and he is doing so well with South Africa. Quins will be up there and then it will either be Sale or Exeter and I’m not sure who.”

Saracens are first into the action live on BT Sport this Friday night with their visit to Bristol, while Robshaw will also be clued into the Sunday service that is Harlequins’ opening-round trip to Newcastle. Keeping tabs on the Premiership will help him while away the next few months before he is due back in America in January for a six-week pre-season ahead of the 2022 Major League Rugby season.

Having managed a mere four games last term, Robshaw is itching to properly play his part for the Legion. “I enjoyed my time there. Unfortunately, I didn’t contribute on the pitch as much as I would have liked, I dislocated my shoulder twice but I definitely think it is a league that is growing. “Yes, there are improvements that definitely need to be made. The more you can get players going across (from England) the more they can get the standard to improve. But the biggest thing for rugby in America, they need to attract players when they are younger. 

“Unfortunately a lot of the American guys want to play in the NFL or basketball or baseball and pick rugby up in their teens or maybe late teens when they realise they might not be quite good enough – ‘Let’s try another sport, I’m a physical guy’. Getting them playing earlier would be a big thing but look, I enjoyed the experience. 

“Mentally, it was very good for me just to go and do something else for a little bit. I have always been south-west London my whole life and to go over there, to be five minutes from the beach and go a couple of times a week, mentally that was so good because that is a huge escape for me, just getting in the ocean. I tried to surf a couple of times, not very successfully. But it was just so different to what I had been through.”

As for what life might hold post-rugby, Robshaw is uncertain and describes the eventual transition away from playing to another career as scary. “There is a potential for another season after 2022 but we will see how the body and the mind are, see where I am in my life. We all know that fortunately as players we earn well but you don’t earn enough to sit and do nothing for the rest of your life. You have to do something and that is what I’m trying to piece together at the moment.

“I speak to a lot of these guys, whether it’s your (Lawrence) Dallaglios or your (Jason) Leonards who have been great in terms of reaching out because a lot of players suffer massively in this period, in this transition of leaving a sport, what do I do next. Firstly, I am in a very fortunate position – we have just had a baby so I’m lucky I’m getting to spend a lot of time with him… but I don’t know what I am going to do.  

“I am going to go to America, I am going to have some fun and just see what happens. But realistically I do need to get things in place and it is scary for someone who only wanted to play rugby their whole life. It’s tough. When people ask you what are you going to do you are like, ‘I don’t know’. It’s that not knowing which can be scary. 

“A lot of people say it is about having a routine and we have been through I don’t know how many years of that. My Monday is the same, my Tuesday is the same, Wednesday is my day off and so on… but at the moment I don’t even know what day it is. Look, I am enjoying this phase, I’m enjoying spending time with my son, enjoying putting some feelers out there and playing some golf days but I am starting to get the wheels in motion because I need to.”

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'A very dark time': Robshaw 11 months on from his Barbarians gaffe

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