After Chris Robshaw played his final match for Harlequins at the Stoop last Monday, his club and England colleague Joe Marler posted on Twitter an opening line from a Walt Whitman poem in tribute: “O captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done.”
Not quite, because Robshaw has a final hurrah in the multicoloured jersey on Sunday. The opponents are fitting, if not the venue, because Leicester were the opponents when Harlequins won the Premiership title for the only time in 2012 and a few survivors from that sun-drenched afternoon will be sprinkled across an empty Welford Road.
There will, though, be no farewell for another Premiership and England stalwart who was born two months after Robshaw and made his senior debut in the same season. Brad Barritt, the Saracens captain during the most successful period in the club’s history, will miss the match against Bath at Allianz Park having failed to recover from the concussion he suffered during last Saturday’s European Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92.
Robshaw, who will end his career in the United States, having signed a two-year contract with San Diego Legion, was a one-club man, serving the side he supported as a boy for 17 years. Barritt, who was born and brought up in South Africa, joined Saracens in 2008 when he was 21 and Eddie Jones was in charge. He came to epitomise a club that turned from a model of inconsistency into serial winners.
“It has been an overwhelming week,” says Robshaw, England’s captain during the 2015 World Cup and whose international career, unlike Barritt’s, survived the arrival of Jones at Twickenham. “It was devastating not to share my final home match on Monday with the fans, something I had dreamed about doing. I wanted to enjoy that moment with them. Being taken around the ground after the match and asked for memories felt like walking to my death. It has been a hell of a ride.”
Robshaw regrets Harlequins did not build on 2012 but during Barritt’s time at Saracens his club have appeared in seven Premiership finals, winning five, and four Champions Cup finals, winning three. “I would love to have a final run-out with the team,” he says.
“The true test of any organisation is the people within it and what I will miss is the special friendships and the brotherhood.
“Saracens changed in 2009 when Brendan Venter arrived and created an infectious environment that everyone liked to be in.”
Robshaw will make his 300th and final appearance for Quins, having won 66 England caps, 43 as captain. Barritt will finish on 261 outings for Saracens on top of 26 caps and he played for the 2013 Lions. He could have spent his entire senior career in England, having had a trial with Bath when he was 17 and spending a week with an England Under-19s squad that included Dylan Harley and Danny Cipriani.
Barritt said: “I was very close to coming but decided to return to Durban and had a few years in Super Rugby with the Sharks.”
They reached the 2007 final, which they lost to the Bulls after Bryan Habana scored a try with the final play of the match.
“A move was always on the cards and I joined Saracens because I wanted to be in London, where I had family. I do not think my girlfriend, now wife, expected me to be here this long. The rest is history. When you are young, you live in the moment.”
Robshaw made his Harlequins debut against Doncaster in October 2005, although it was another two years before he appeared in the Premiership. “I had a couple of opportunities elsewhere before I broke into the first team, but I could never picture myself playing for another team,” he says.
“I always felt we could achieve something at Quins and doing that at a club I had always supported meant more than with another one. That we did not maximise our potential was tough to take given some of the players we have had during my time here. I do not think it will sink in that I have gone until pre-season starts.”
While Robshaw is off to the west coast of America in the new year, where he will play no more than 16 matches a season, Barritt is returning to South Africa this month anticipating retirement. “You try to keep the candle burning, but the opportunities I have outside the game look better and I would say it is 90% I will not play again,” he says.
Robshaw, whose new club have hired Jones as an adviser, has been told morning training sessions will be followed by recovery on the beach while one of the side’s owners has a surfing business. “He intends to get me on a board, but I am a bit wary of sharks,” he says.
“I have only ever known Harlequins and London and wanted to try something different. My career here has been pressure-oriented and when you look back, you wish you had enjoyed it more, but you relax with age.”
Robshaw and Barritt have more than earned their send-offs, two uncompromising, no-frills players who have conducted themselves impeccably on and off the pitch and not been deflected by disappointment. “O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells,” Whitman’s poem (about the death of Abraham Lincoln) continues. “Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills, for you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths.”