Chris Robshaw: inside the England Camp
It was a huge honour to be renamed England Captain for the upcoming 6 Nations and it's exciting to see the squad reassemble. It's early days in the camp but there's already a good vibe amongst the boys.
A few of the guys played last Sunday and there's always a couple of knocks and niggles, so the first Monday was spent with the medical team and nutritionists, followed by some weights in the afternoon to keep things ticking over. The rest of the first week up in Leeds largely focused on getting everyone gelling as a unit again, because we've been playing club rugby for the last two months, using different structures, lineout calls, moves, etc.
We finished with a training session on Friday at Headingley with 6,000 people from clubs, schools, colleges and universities coming to watch us and that meant a lot to the players, to have so many come out on a wintry day, and I'm glad we were able to say hello and sign a few things for them.
Looking around the squad, there are some exciting new faces. Joe Launchbury made a real mark during the QBE Internationals and it's brilliant that he's been called into the squad fulltime. Similarly, Mako Vunipola came off the bench in every game during the autumn and really imposed himself. His younger brother Billy is also with us; he carries hard, tackles hard and is a brilliant ball-carrier. It's great that these young guys can get exposure to that kind of rugby and make an impact at such a young age.
Credit also needs to go to Stuart Lancaster and the coaches. They've created a culture and atmosphere where players can come in and feel comfortable. It's nerve-wracking entering a new set-up but Stuart has created an environment where guys can come in, get on with their natural game and, most importantly, enjoy it.
Now that we've been together for a year, there is great unity in the squad. There's probably a bit more pressure than last year, when there were new coaches and new players, as we're coming off the back of that fantastic win against New Zealand and people will have a better idea of what to expect. We're very excited about hopefully backing-up what we achieved against the All Blacks and moving forward.
This week we're at Pennyhill Park as we build up to our first fixture on 2nd February. The Calcutta Cup (England v. Scotland) is always a momentous occasion and it's fantastic to be at home, with the 80,000-strong Twickenham crowd behind us. It will be hugely important to start the campaign with a solid performance and that support will spur us on immensely.
It'll be interesting to see what the new Scotland coaching set-up brings to the squad. We'll not concern ourselves too much with this though, rather remain focused on our own game and making sure we're delivering on the preparations we put in place during these two weeks.
Home and Away
It will undoubtedly be special to have three out of the five games at home but we've also got two hard away trips.
Both Dublin and Cardiff are iconic stadia and very challenging places to play at. The Irish will inevitably be as ferocious as they usually are. We had a great performance against them last year and they'll be trying to put that right. They're strong across the board but their back-row players in particular are always powerful - I'm relishing the challenge of coming up against them on their home turf.
Wales are the other away fixture and there's always a terrific atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium. Wales didn't perform well during their autumn series, so we'll need to be wary of a potential backlash. Even though they've been badly affected by injuries, they're going to be a very hard outfit to play against. You should never underestimate the defending Grand Slam champions!
France had an incredible autumn, looking really dangerous under new coach Philippe Saint-Andre. You have to be hugely mindful of Les Bleus, particularly in defence, as their counter attack is deadly and they can hurt you from anywhere. I think the bookies are putting France and England down as the tournament favourites but it's too early to know if that will be the big crunch game.
Showing 'We Mean Business'
We'll potentially have to learn from a few mistakes along the way but realising what works well for us will be key to consistently showing our opponents that we mean business. Most important will be to get our 6Nations campaign off to a good start and move on from there. We're all focused on backing up what we did in the autumn, setting a solid benchmark early and then continuing to build throughout.