Expert Witness: Chris Robshaw’s checklist to picking the perfect Rugby World Cup squad

Chris Robshaw on picking England squad - Alamy.jpg Credit: Alamy

Chris Robshaw on picking England squad – Alamy.jpg Credit: Alamy

With England’s 33-man Rugby World Cup squad set to be named on August 7, Steve Borthwick has the unenviable task of cutting down his current 44-player group.

Planet Rugby writer James While spoke to former England and Harlequins skipper Chris Robshaw, a man who has led his country 44 times, to understand what the senior leaders are looking for from a squad and what are the various considerations that form the final thinking behind selection.

Time together

“It’s always worth reminding yourself that Steve Borthwick and his coaches have spent a lot of time, some 10 weeks, in a squad environment and he will be carefully considering the dynamics, both on and off pitch, that are emerging,” Robshaw explained.

“He and his assistant coaches won’t miss a thing and you’ll find different types of characters emerging – you’ll have the listeners, the guys that are always there for you when you want to vent, or you’re down or discuss an aspect they have expertise in; the social lads – the organisers of events, drinks and dinners that are key to keep all happy and engaged within the camp, and then you’ll have the on-pitch leadership group, not always by name but more so by action – the guys that see how England want to play and are prepared either to challenge or to support the direction of strategy and tactics.

“All of these different blend of personalities combine to form the whole – and it’s key that the coaches, backroom staff and the players themselves develop a happy and stable environment, one where hard work is at the core of everyone’s ethic but where challenge and different views are listened to. Happy teams tend to succeed, which is why we always place importance on things like the listeners and the social lads I alluded to earlier.

“As a former skipper, I will stress that the coaches are in sole control of this; it’s not like cricket where the captain has a large input into selection. I am sure Steve might seek the views of his senior leaders on a few technical aspects, balance and perhaps the marginal calls, but generally it’s down to the coaching staff to select a group that fits the game-plan they need the players to deliver.”

Attitude and versatility

“Given where we are in terms of Steve’s timeline, he will certainly have an idea of his Test match 15 or even 23 at this point, so the key to great selection is picking players to fit in around that structure,” Robshaw continued.

“What he will look for is either contrast – the ability to have an option to do something differently – or similar – the cover for key players that slots in with the least performance drop off possible.

“Both versatility and attitude plays an important part here. Attitude is key – it’s inevitable that the fringe players firstly need to be comfortable knowing that perhaps they’re not going to start – and then secondly they have to understand that they might be supporting others chosen ahead of them, whether that’s in training opposition or in simple chores around the group; when that happens, to have the character and humility to support the starting team to the hilt with no questions asked is a fantastic quality and one key to a harmonious environment.

“This applies also to the reserve list that don’t travel as part of the 33, and I assure you there will be some disappointed men there. As a great example, 2015, Nick Easter was gutted to miss out on the initial selection, but Nick went back to Quins, kept himself super fit and sharp as the absolute pro he always was and when an injury came along, he came back in and slotted seamlessly back in at the Test match level and in fact snatched a hat-trick in his one start of the tournament!

“Versatility can be an important factor too. There’s a few guys like Henry Slade, Joe Marchant, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, George Martin and Elliot Daly that can offer Test match quality in a number of positions, and with only 33 on the plane, the choices those guys can offer a coach in times of injury or wanting to change things around is absolutely invaluable.

“When putting these sides together for the four warm-up Tests don’t be surprised to see a few left field experiments either in game or in selection; maybe Marcus Smith or George Ford might play a quarter of a match at nine, or perhaps Courtney might go back to lock or Maro to flank just to contingency plan scenarios that might occur in the heat of a World Cup knockout stage. Some of you might recall Ben Kay and Peter Richards both having to play for periods in the back-row in the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final and whilst that’s an extreme example, it’s also a reminder of what can happen,” noted the former skipper.

Fitness is everything

“One of the key considerations will be absolute fitness – and by that I don’t mean 95 or 96% fit I mean 100% fit. Sure, a few players are always carrying legacy knocks which need managing properly, but outside of that it’s a fool’s errand to take players that are still on return to play profiles after injury,” Robshaw continued.

“It’s happened a number of times within different teams throughout the history of the Rugby World Cup and the last thing you want to be carrying players who are not quite match fit but who are desperate to prove that they are. It’s not conducive to the best team environment – which is one where all 33 are fit, challenging and raring to go.

“England have a particularly bruising group with some heavyweight hitting sides in front of them. It’s key that Steve can rotate out of that 33, to have had combinations have game time together in the warm-ups and to have options available to him to maintain the same game-plan or to deliver a plan based upon the side he’s facing.

“As a simple example, with the props available and assuming Ellis Genge starts against Argentina, Joe Marler might get the bench nod above Mako Vunipola or Bevan Rodd as he is the better scrummager of the bunch, whereas against Wales, Mako or Bevan might offer more value in their work around the park. And should we face South Africa in the knockout stages, the chat might well be about Joe starting above anyone. The message here is that you can’t lose sight of the fact selection is always informed by the team you’re facing and whilst there will be clear strategies and plays in place, that playbook will have variance to suit the opposition,” Robshaw explained.

The bottom line

“The bottom line is we’ve got one match against Wales before the team announcement the following Monday. We may see a couple of fringe uncertainties given a chance in Cardiff, but thereafter, it’ll be an attempt to bed in strategy, selection, tactics and personnel. If players are not in that 33 on August 7, then they must remain sharp; In the nine Rugby World Cups played thus far, I cannot recall one instance of the original squad named not being changed due to injury by the time the team leaves for the World Cup.

“In terms of ‘Robbo’s bolters’ I will be interested to see the final selection but I have been very impressed with Tom Willis and have heard some great reports about his development and in particular, his carrying power in his season for UBB. Eight is a vital position for a specialist and he offers a great package of go forward, lineout expertise and, like his brother, over the ball ability at the breakdown.

“It’s telling that my old teammate Cadan Murley has been recalled into the training camp after an initial omission and he offers such work-rate and finishing gas that I think it’s hard to leave him out and I believe Steve’s brought him back with a view of taking him in the 33.

“And lastly, I have been very impressed by Martin, the Tigers flank/lock. He’s a big powerful guy, the sort of lad props love behind them but he also is so crushing in tackle and gainline defence, with a huge appetite for the physical work. I think his ability to play four, five or six might just see him get the nod over other more established players,” Robshaw concluded.

“As with all these things, the training squad members will have left nothing behind in terms of their effort and should be very proud of getting this far, although we know there will inevitably be some disappointment. I am looking forward greatly to see Steve’s final combinations and I am sure that whoever he picks, his diligence and honesty will have left no stone unturned in his thinking.”

READ MORE: Farrell, Ford or Smith – Former England captain picks his Rugby World Cup fly-half

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