Conor O'Shea stands up for under-pressure England captain Chris Robshaw
Harlequins boss Conor O'Shea lavished praise on under-pressure England captain Chris Robshaw after his team suffered a 26-25 Aviva Premiership defeat to Exeter at Sandy Park.
New England head coach Eddie Jones officially starts work next Tuesday, and it is widely expected that he will replace Robshaw as skipper for the RBS 6 Nations campaign later this season.
Jones' predecessor Stuart Lancaster paid the price for England's dismal World Cup campaign that saw them make a pool-stage exit, with Robshaw, who has captained his country 42 times, now facing an uncertain Test future.
Despite Quins being denied victory in Devon, rugby director O'Shea hailed Robshaw's performance as the Londoners secured two losing bonus points.
"I never single people out, but I thought Chris Robshaw was outstanding today," O'Shea said.
"I hope people take a long, hard look at that before they start writing him off.
"He has been one of the outstanding back-row forwards in this country for many a year.
"He made yards today when you didn't think he could make yards, and he was turning ball over, he was tackling, he was working.
"I am gutted for us as a team, but I am incredibly proud of the performance. We are going to be in this for the long haul this season - 100 per cent - and we are going to get stronger and stronger.
"There is a genuine fight and drive within this group to prove a few things to themselves and to a few others."
Exeter held on to second place in the Premiership after fly-half Gareth Steenson inspired a gripping victory in rain-swept conditions.
Steenson scored 21 points from a try, four penalties and two conversions, while wing James Short claimed a first-half touchdown, although Quins will feel frustrated that they did not triumph.
Quins saw an early penalty try followed by scores for fly-half Nick Evans, Charlie Walker and his fellow wing Tim Visser, with Evans adding a penalty and conversion.
But despite trailing by just two points at half-time after playing into a strong wind, Quins could not make the elements count, and their misery was completed when substitute Tim Swiel missed an angled penalty three minutes from time.
O'Shea added: "It was a case of should have, could have. We felt really in control in the first half playing into a very strong wind, when I thought we were very disciplined.
"We are disappointed we couldn't finish it off. We should have seen that off, but we didn't. The players are absolutely gutted."
Exeter, though, remain unbeaten at home in the Premiership since early January, and even at such an early stage of the campaign, they look strong title play-off material.
"I thought Harlequins were very good, particularly in the first-half," Exeter head coach Rob Baxter said. "They took advantage of what was quite a passive and timid performance by us in the first half.
"The try we scored just before half-time was crucial for us, and then we started to show some proper qualities.
"We got our set-piece going, and we probably showed enough for us just to edge it. We fought and fought.
"We are frustrated at parts of the performance, but ultimately, sometimes you have got to look at the scoreboard. Teams that hang around for long periods in the top four, that's what they do.
"Sometimes, you win games and you kind of wonder how you have won them.
"Y ou look at all the mistakes you've made, and between us, both teams today will think the winning of the game was there for them."