Rugby League: Prodigal finds peace and new meaning in his play

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The Independent Online
Hallelujah. Jason Robinson's return to the fold is good news indeed for Great Britain as they face the mighty Australians at Wembley today. Yet - but for a spiritual conversion - the talented Wigan player may have been lost to the game here, he tells Dave Hadfield.

If there is more rejoicing over the return of the prodigal than over any of the rest of the family, then it is no wonder that the game in Britain has been barbecuing the fatted calf for Jason Robinson this week.

The biblical resonances are entirely apt. It is a double conversion - on the road to Sydney, rather than to Damascus - that has made Robinson available to play against Australia at Wembley today.

When the battle was on for the soul of the game in April 1995, Robinson was one of that elite group of British players who were offered their pieces of silver. He took them and, because they were from the Australian Rugby League that was - and is - fighting for its existence against Super League in Britain and Australia, he has occupied a sort of limbo ever since, able to play out his time with Wigan but barred from representing his country unless the ARL allowed him to do so.

"It was a decision just based on the money," he admits candidly. "Rugby league players weren't very well paid then and it was like winning the Lottery. There was also a feeling that, if you didn't hurry up and sign for one of them, they would join up again and you would miss out.

"I was also a bit surprised, to be honest with you, because I thought at the time that I was one of the top players in England, and I thought that more could have been done to keep me here."

So, out of a mixture of opportunism and wounded pride, he signed to go to Australia when his Wigan contract expired this year and set out with a vengeance to enjoy his windfall.

"I was young and it got to me. That's why I disagree with anyone who thinks that winning the Lottery won't affect them. Suddenly, you could have anything you wanted and I abused it - I took advantage."

Robinson had not been on starvation wages before, but he now seemed to lose all sense of proportion. He lorded it in a convertible that was flash even by the new "if you've got it, flaunt it" standards at his level of the game. He drank with a crowd with more experience and capacity, got out of his depth and into his share of trouble.

"I got drunk to forget about the problems in my life, but when I looked at myself, I didn't like what the money had done to me."

He was ready for a new direction and found it, indirectly, through one of his Wigan team-mates who showed no interest in the hectic social life that went with being a well-rewarded rugby league star - Va'aiga Tuigamala.

"Inga [Tuigamala] was in the team and he made me question things. He was such a big, happy fellow. He seemed so much at peace - that was something I'd never had and it got me thinking a bit."

Robinson felt that his life was getting so badly out of control that he went to live with a Christian group for two months. He was reconciled with his pregnant girlfriend, who also rediscovered her religion, and they are now married with two children.

When Robinson talks of being saved, he does not mean it as a mere form of words. The way he describes it, he was in a downward spiral that would have destroyed him.

"I haven't drunk for two and a half years now. I just wouldn't go into a pub and I feel the benefit of it. There are always people saying, `Come on', but gradually they come to respect your decision.

"It was a difficult time spiritually for me at Bath, because it was a new group of people and I had to go through the same thing all over again when they expected me to be part of the social life. Slowly but steadily, they came to accept it."

Robinson might be born-again, but not as a wholly unworldly individual. He enjoyed his time at Bath, the kudos of keeping Jon Sleightholme out of the side and the earning power.

"I took a bit of criticism, but I kept out the current England winger and, until the heavy grounds came, I was scoring tries regularly. Just imagine what I would do if I knew the rules.

"It gave me some finance and it showed me that I could do something else apart from rugby league if I wanted to in the future. I certainly wouldn't rule that out."

But the way he treats his rugby, of either code, now is "as a job". "Don't get me wrong - I'll always give my best in every game I play, but whereas everything used to revolve around it, there are now more important things in my life, like God and my family."

The altered status of rugby in his life is not apparent to Wigan supporters, however. During a troubled season for the club, Robinson - especially after a mid-season switch to full-back - was a constant source of reassurance. The extra attacking options saw him produce perhaps the best rugby of his career. He was unflappable on the field and there was a new approachability about a previously bristly young man off it.

There was only one thing wrong. He no longer wanted to go to Australia. "I had realised that there were more important things than money. I was happy here with my family, happy at my church. I had wanted to go, but that was before I was saved."

The struggle to save him from the consequences of the contract he signed in 1995 has been protracted. The ARL was understandably reluctant to give up one of its most significant captures, but this week Wigan finally managed to negotiate his release, thus freeing him, just in time, to join Great Britain's preparation for today's series-opening Test.

"A week ago, I didn't expect to be able to play in any of the games, so I hadn't thought much about it. Now I'm looking forward to it, because it's going to be a challenge - and at the top level in rugby league you don't always get that.

"It does you good to play against people who are better than you. It humbles you, in a way. But they are only human and New Zealand showed that teams like that can be beaten, if everyone gives 110 per cent."

Such is Robinson's standing that no one could seriously complain at him being drafted in, however late in the day. The key now for the Great Britain coach Andy Goodway is to use him to optimum effect.

Despite his success at full-back, Robinson will not resent a return to the wing for this series. More relevant will be the ability of Great Britain to use his strength and elusiveness in the middle of the field; he was a half-back when Wigan found him playing junior league in Leeds.

"I can do a bit of damage in those areas when the forwards start blowing a bit. I'm not the greatest in the world in any of those positions, but sometimes it can work well if I get into them."

Amen to that, the broad church that is British rugby league will say this afternoon. There will be a few out-and-out heathens quietly praying for Jason Robinson to practice those preachings.

GREAT BRITAIN v AUSTRALIA

at Wembley Stadium

Probable teams

J Robinson Wigan 1 D Lockyear Brisbane

A Hunte St Helens 2 B Mullins Canberra

P Newlove St Helens 3 A Ettingshausen Cronulla

K Radlinski Wigan 4 R Girdler Penrith

A Sullivan St Helens 5 W Sailor Brisbane

A Farrell Wigan, capt 6 L Daley Canberra, capt

B Goulding St Helens 7 C Gower Penrith

B McDermott Bradford 8 J Stevens Cronulla

J Lowes Bradford 9 S Walters N Queensland

P Broadbent Sheffield 10 B Thorn Brisbane

C Joynt St Helens 11 M Adamson Penrith

M Cassidy Wigan 12 G Tallis Brisbane

P Sculthorpe Warrington 13 D Smith Brisbane

Substitutes: S McNamara Substitutes: R Kearns (Perth),

(Bradford), P Atcheson B Kimmorley (Hunter),

(St Helens), A Morley (Leeds), C Greenhill (Cronulla),

D Sampson (Castleford) K Negas (Canberra)

Referee: P Houston (New Zealand) Kick-off: 2.30 (Sky Sports 1)

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