Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson salutes England captain Chris Robshaw, a man who has overcome huge personal difficulties with both dignity and humility
I don’t know how many of you follow boxing – and UK boxing at that – but I’m hoping that you’ll bear with me and indulge me for a few of your reading seconds here. There’s a heavyweight boxer called Derek Chisora who fought Vitali Klitschko for the WBC crown in Munich on Saturday night. He lost, for what it’s worth. But what sticks in the mind from the fight isn’t the quality or otherwise of his performance in the ring, but rather his complete and utter lack of class outside of it.
Chisora slapped Klitschko at the weigh-in, breaking all of the written and unwritten rules of boxing protocol. It was a cheap shot, made all the worse by the fact that Chisora had his face covered, bandit-style, with a Union Jack bandana, designed to clearly associate him with his adopted country. Then at the post-fight press conference he got into a ruck with another UK heavyweight, David Haye, who’d turned up looking for trouble. Blood was spilled. In a boxing world where decency is generally at a premium, the 28-year-old Zimbabwe-born fighter sank to a new low.
I felt exactly the same way watching this graceful action as I do whenever I see shaven-headed, bulldog-tattooed, British holidaymakers causing aggravation on the European continent. An overwhelming sense of shame mixed in with a huge desire to distance myself from such a brainless mob. My reaction is always the same. I want to tell people that not all British people are mindless, charmless nerks. That, honestly, there are some classy acts in our country alongside the remedial idiots.
This much I know, especially after spending some time in the company of England rugby captain Chris Robshaw this week. At a time when standards of behaviour are under immense scrutiny, even in the refined world of rugby, Robshaw stands out as a hell of a guy. Over 15 years of working in the sport, I’ve found the vast majority of rugby players to be genuinely decent folk; pleasant to be around and interesting to get to know. Yet Chris Robshaw stands out even in a group of outstanding people. I don’t want to paint him out as a saint, but the 25 year old really is an impressive human being. Since being made England captain at the start of the Six Nations with just one senior cap to his name, Robshaw had impressed absolutely everybody with his attitude and his temperament. Oh, and his work on the pitch, of course, which has been of the highest calibre. The idea that Robshaw would take a cheap shot like Chisora – even in the highly-charged atmosphere of an intense international – is frankly unthinkable. And when you know the personal battles that the Harlequins flanker has had to win simply to get in this position, well there are few words to describe the esteem in which he’s held.
Robshaw suffered a broken foot on two separate occasions in his first year at Quins, then followed it up with a sophomore effort of a broken leg and ruptured cruciate ligaments. It would have made most men buckle and fold. “I did wonder whether I was really cut out for professional rugby,” he confided to me. But even these professional setbacks pale into insignificance in the light of the personal problems Robshaw has been forced to overcome. First his dad Alan died of a heart attack when Chris was just five years old, a hammer blow for a young child if ever there was one. Then Chris was diagnosed as dyslexic, which meant that all of his schooling was 10 times more complicated for him than for the average child. The courage required to surmount such devastating problems and then go on to become captain of your country is the kind of ‘strength through adversity’ tale that even Hollywood producers would dismiss as being too unrealistic, too cheesy.
Yet Robshaw’s story is all too real. To see first hand the manner in which he dealt with the media scrum at the England training centre on the very day it was announced that he would skipper the side for the remainder of the Six Nations spoke volumes for the guy. Courteous, humble and attentive, he not only said all the right things, he also did all the right things – even when team mate Geoff Parling was doing his utmost to put Robshaw off by filming him on his own camcorder and taking the rise out of him whenever and wherever he was trying to work. Robshaw took it all in his stride, as if he’d been England skipper for years already.
I don’t want to sound like an old fart, talking about moral standards and all the rest of it. But on a weekend when Derek Chisora showed how low professional sportsmen can sink, Chris Robshaw proved that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of good, old-fashioned decency. Whether or not England win the Six Nations, there has already been one unqualified success. And his name is Chris Robshaw.
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