INTERVIEW: Chris Robshaw determined to seize the moment at RWC

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Captain fantastic: Chris Robshaw.

Chris Robshaw is used to critics and the sharpening of knives over his personal performances and captaincy decisions. He has been vilified before and knows it will happen again.

Greater than ever, the spotlight is on the Red Rose captain as he gets ready to lead his nation at a World Cup, bidding to become the first Englishman to skipper his side to the ultimate glory on home turf.

This year has proved a coming of age for the 29-year-old, the doubters no longer questioning his leadership qualities or position in the starting line-up having played a starring role as England missed out to Ireland in winning the Six Nations. 

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It is a far cry from the young lad who admitted that "rugby proved to be my escape", in his case an escape from the classroom, which proved to be an uncomfortable place for a dyslexic. 

And rugby was also a release for this mother Patricia, who tragically became a single parent when Robshaw's father, Alan, died of a heart attack. Chris was five, and his mother had three boisterous boys on her hands with energy to burn. 

"When Dad died it was extremely tough for me." he recalls. "Being young, I don't remember it as much as some of the rest of the family but it was really tough for me, my family and my mum, who gave us the most amazing opportunities. I'm sure we gave her plenty of moments and challenges and she was forever taking me places. She gave me that belief but also that work ethic."

His mother is a workaholic, running two nursing homes and stepping in to take the place of staff who call in sick. It's a work ethic Robshaw has seen at first hand and has been instilled in his approach to the game both in training and match time for both Harlequins and England, seemingly the quintessential player under the regime of England coach Stuart Lancaster. 

He has left no stone unturned, speaking to the key figures in the 1991 and 1999 World Cup sides when the tournament previously ventured to English shores, and to the class of 2003, including Jonny Wilkinson who famously drop-kicked England to their only victory to date.

He said: "You want to speak to those guys to pick up every facet of information possible that can help you. A lot of them know what it's like to play in front of a home crowd. The expectation and excitement is going to be huge. It's about being ready for that."

For much of his early career, Robshaw was only ever on the fringes of the World Cup. He was in the initial training squad for the 2011 tournament only to be culled late on by then coach Martin Johnson. Rather than be embittered, he simply focused on forcing his way in and, in many ways, missing out was a blessing as England made a hash of it.

Robshaw takes on possession during England's game against France earlier this year.

He was among the first new blood of the Lancaster regime, and there is a clear mutual respect between captain and coach: "He doesn't mind you speaking your mind and we've been able to have some very honest conversations."

Have those conversations stretched to the possibility that England could yet suffer the ignominy of being knocked out of their home event even before the pool stages are over? He added: "Look. we have great belief in ourselves as a side. We'll go out looking to top that group."

Despite a group of death including Australia and Wales. Robshaw has dared to dream of celebrating come the World Cup final. He said: "Lifting the trophy would mean the world to me. We're definitely aiming to do that. The boys who've played at past World Cups have told me what an incredible spectacle it is. I can't wait."

"We have great belief in ourselves. We'll go out looking to top that group" – Robshaw

On current world rankings, they should make it through and Robshaw, who has turned to stand-up comedy and acting in the past to help better himself on and off the field, plans to leave no stone unturned.

On the eve of the tournament, it goes back to that dyslexic kid struggling for acceptance. that and his rugby taking him to the famous Millfield School renowned for producing a conveyor belt of English sporting talent. "The dyslexia and the rugby were the two reasons for me going there," he said. "As a kid I didn't appreciate it at the time being picked out but looking back it was extremely beneficial for me. They paired you up with similar people and you had that understanding."

Robshaw would love nothing more than be the man to be picked out to lift aloft the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

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England's fortress: Twickenham.

England kick-off their home World Cup on Friday night under the tremendous pressure that comes with being hosts, pitted in the competition’s ‘group of death’ and facing a potentially hazardous foe in the erratic yet occasionally mesmerising Fijians.

Across the sporting spectrum it isn’t the sort of scenario you often see a home nation burdened with. For a variety of reasons it is more common to see the team throwing the party receive some welcome early gifts.

England simply do not have that luxury with Australia, two-time winners of the Webb Ellis Cup on British Soil, and bitter domestic rivals Wales making up the pool alongside poor old Uruguay.

– #360podcast: Can anyone stop NZ from winning another RWC?
– RWC: Sport 360 E-Magazine Rugby World Cup guide
– #360debate: Will New Zealand retain the Rugby World Cup?
– #360Rugby: Rugby World Cup predictions

Excluding the South Americans, the other four are all ranked in world rugby’s top-10 and with only two progressing at least one 
top-five side will face the ignominy of a painfully early exit. 

Should that be the hosts then it would rank alongside the Red Rose’s greatest disappointments – even given they face perhaps the toughest opening run of fixtures any side has ever tackled at a World Cup.

Indeed, it is not only the composition of their pool; the order in which the games arrive also provides few home comforts. 

After Fiji, it is Wales next and then the Australians, before finishing off against the Uruguayans in a match which could already be redundant unless points difference becomes a decisive factor. 

Compare that with the Aussies, who also start against Fiji – five days after they have faced England – before taking on minnows Uruguay.

You’d think having those two games to start off with would give Michael Cheika’s Wallabies the chance to iron out any issues and build some momentum heading into competition-defining clashes with England and lastly Wales.

Whatever happens, the two teams to emerge from Pool A will deserve their places in the last eight, and it opens the debate as to whether a tough start in a long competition such as this can actually be beneficial. 

New Zealand are the perennial favourites when it come to the RWC but have disappointed time and again in the knockout stages having earlier coasted through their pool posting record beatings on modest opposition. 

The contrasting school of thought is that by overcoming stiff competition early on, a side can emerge galvanised, battle-hardened and ready to produce a level of performance to worry any teams lying in wait. 

England will certainly hope they can prove that logic correct and, while luck deserted them in the draw, they do have one major ace in their pack: Twickenham. 

Although he later predictably claimed his words in a scathing  interview with L’Equipe about English rugby were lost in translation, former All Black prop Ali Williams this week described Twickenham as the “most hostile ground in the world”. 

There’s no doubt England’s south west London home offers them a distinct advantage and they have been notoriously difficult to beat there under Stuart Lancaster. 

Since the start of 2013 they have won 14 of 17 at home, only losing to New Zealand (twice) and South Africa.

Their dominance on their own turf will come under instant scrutiny, starting on Friday night, but that could just see England prosper from a siege mentality with fortress Twickenham at its very heart.

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