Jason Robinson knew that sheep farming was not for him when one of his Shropshire ewes made a run for it, and another 20 followed blindly along. Being a professional rugby coach was not entirely dissimilar. "All the years I was playing I had a role to do," says the most decorated man to have graced both codes. "If I didn't do it, it was just me who hadn't been good enough.
"It's different when you're coaching because you can go through all the moves, all the plays, but when the players get out there, they are left to execute what you've been doing all week. You can lead a horse to water but you can't always make it drink."
Horses, as it happens, still populate the Robinson farm, together with some chickens, in the Ribble Valley a few miles north of Wigan, where he made his rugby name. The sheep have gone. That was a lesson learnt, and so too was his nine months as the head coach of Sale Sharks, who go to Saracens in the Premiership today with Mike Brewer, a former All Black, in the role Robinson was obliged to relinquish last April. He says he enjoyed the one-to-one work on individuals' skills but matters clearly ended poorly between him and the Sale chairman, Brian Kennedy.
"There were things I was disappointed with," says Robinson. "I've no gripes with the players or the coaches. I put in more time than I was paid for, I took a few bullets for the camp, they brought someone else in and I hope he's successful." The director of rugby, Kingsley Jones, is still there, dealing with the fallout of last season's narrow escape from rele-gation and no longer seen on the training field.
At 36, bringing up five children on the farm with his wife, Amanda, Robinson has reached that inevitable crossroads for a sportsman which the everyday individual might meet at 65. Currently the sat nav is set locally, as he has signed up for a year in the equivalent of the fourth division with Fylde on the Blackpool coast. Yesterday was his debut, playing at outside centre against Preston Grasshoppers, and 2,415 people turned up, increasing the average attendance by 2,000.
On Thursday, we spoke in the smart, modern clubhouse as the sun dipped over the Golden Mile up the road, then he was jinking about in training; ever the diminutive dynamo, this man perhaps rivalled only by Jonah Lomu for the galvanising effect his individual skills had on teams. When training was done the devoutly Christian teetotal Robinson had a pint of Coke and threw a few darts with his new mates. Unlike at Sale, which was "stressful and frustrating", the evening ended with a cheery wave and a "G'night lads".
Robinson's new motto is "never say never", driven by such instructive episodes as coming out of international retirement to help England to rugby union's World Cup final in 2007 – his third after losing in league's in 1995 and unforgettably winning the union one in 2003 – and meeting his natural father for the first time last year.
William Thorpe, a Jamaican living in Leeds, had abandoned Jason before he was born. Robinson, as he recounted in harrowing detail in his 2003 autobiography, grew up with a stepfather who beat his mother.
Robinson fell into hard drinking and carousing, even while accumulating his 19 rugby league caps for England and Great Britain and numerous cups with Wigan, before he found Christianity in the mid-1990s.
He switched codes permanently with Sale (after an earlier stint with Bath) in 2000. But there was always the "hole" in his life which was not knowing his father. "Having retired [from playing in 2007], that gave me time to step back, think, assess certain things and it worked out that I met him," Robinson says. "I couldn't have gone through all that while I was on the rugby treadmill. Mentally it would have been too tough.
"It was through my half-brother and sister. I met them first and that paved the way to meeting him. They live where I used to live, growing up.
"I'd played in all these big games, after coming from a modest background, and he was one of the people I should have been sharing it with. I used to put it at the back of my mind, and not talk about it, but it was a hole.
"I needed to overcome that and I did not realise how much. The problem is, we are good at disguising things. In the rugby world it's a macho environment. You don't show that you're hurt. It's not dog eat dog but we're brought up to be macho, to not take a step back. There are times when you need to address things and to actually have a cry, you know."
He discovered that William had followed his career and watched those big matches. "It was strange to find that out," says Robinson. "Even though I felt I'd been hard done by, I needed to make the first move and I'm so glad I have. I've seen him a few times.
"There's no bitterness there. I've made so many mistakes in my life, I can't say, 'You shouldn't have done this or that'. You've got to forgive and you've got to move on. You've got to overcome. And it's the first time I've ever called anyone 'dad'. You've got names in your phone, and I speak to my mum all the time, but I've never scrolled down my phone and seen 'dad'. All of a sudden, 36 years later, I've got 'dad' in my phone book."
Robinson's children, aged between three and 15, are educated at home. Coincidentally, it was on Father's Day, when he took the family to a rugby festival, that a chat with Mark Nelson, also once of Sale and now director of rugby at Fylde, led to Robinson's latest venture. Brian Ashton is there too, the former England coach assisting at the club he played for in the 1970s.
They are well connected at the highest administrative levels, through Bill Beaumont and Malcolm Phillips, and well set up with modern facilities but most of the players get match fees of £50 or thereabouts, and though Robinson is being paid ("not Premiership money", he insists) he describes it as amateur rugby, which is fine.
He makes the short journey for training twice a week and passes on his experience to the Fylde squad and a local school. He watches England with a patrician's eye, and says: "I think in the summer they made steps forward in the way they played, but there's no doubt there's a lot more steps to be made. It's a massive 12 months and it's the time to shine. There are players in the England team who have not been in a World Cup, and it can send your career flying."
One with that potential is Northampton's full-back Ben Foden, who came through alongside Robinson at Sale – when Foden wanted to be a scrum-half. "You know when Ben gets the ball, he's thinking, 'Who can I take on?' and that's great," says Robinson. "He had his mind fixed on playing No 9. I know through experience that when you're breaking into a team, you don't decide where you're playing. There is no 19- or 20-year-old who decides that. You just play. Ben's got his head down, he's realised there's other No 9s about, he's playing No 15 and playing for England."
As for Robinson, he admits he can't keep fit for keeping fit's sake. "I've been mentally and physically challenged for so long. I like living on a farm but I need more than that and I have more fulfilment working in rugby. It's the best place for me to be."
Robinson needs goals now more than tries, but he seems happy waiting for the next sign to light up at the sporting crossroads.
Life and times
Born: 30 July 1974, Leeds.
Rugby league: Joined Wigan from amateur club Hunslet and scored 184 tries in fewer than 300 games, winning four successive titles, twoChallenge Cups and a World Club Championship. Made international debut at 19 for Great Britain against New Zealand. Capped 12 times by England and seven times by Britain.
Troubled times: Overcame alcoholism during his time at Wigan and became a born-again Christian.
Rugby union: Controversially changed codes in 2000, joining Sale Sharks. In February 2001, became first player to represent England inunion and league, making a debut against Italy. Capped 51 times, scoring 36 tries including a touchdown in England’s 2003 World Cup final win over Australia. Announced international retirement but performed well as England reached 2007 World Cup final.
Final fling: Came out of retirement after three years to play for League Two team Fylde.Reuse content