Robinson ready for hot reception

Chris Hewett talks to a rugby union wing enjoying the best of both worlds
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The Independent Online
R ugby has been transformed so completely in the course of a single summer of unprecedented upheaval that the grand old game would struggle to recognise itself in the mirror. Some things, though, are change-resistant; the All Blacks are still good, prop forwards are still ugly and Kingsholm remains a snarling, seething bear pit of a ground, rich in humour but relentless in its hostility to visiting teams.

Especially Bath. Gloucester home games have always been cut-throat affairs, but the die-hards in the Kingsholm Shed tend to be at their belligerent best when the most successful English club side of them all make the 40- mile trip up the M5. Forget the soap opera theme tune; these particular neighbours will never be good friends.

Jason Robinson can expect to find all this out for himself today. Nicknamed "Billy Whizz", the 21-year-old Wigan and Great Britain rugby league international will have to move pretty quickly to dodge the insults from the massed ranks of Cherry and White loudmouths. Does the prospect worry him? Not one jot.

"There are quite a few tough crowds in league who take it out on Wigan for exactly the same reason that union crowds love having a go at Bath," he says. "Who are the worst? I'm not saying. I might have to go back and face them one day. But I don't think I'll hear anything at Gloucester that I haven't heard before."

Robinson's code-breaking move from one champion club to another did not generate quite the hullabaloo he might have expected after three eye-catching seasons in the 13-man game. While Henry Paul, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Gary Connolly and Martin Offiah, all club-mates at Central Park, received the fanfare treatment, the welcome for the most exhilaratingly direct runner to hit the league scene in years was comparatively muted.

It took him rather less than 48 hours to get himself noticed. Robinson helped Wigan tie up the Premiership a week ago last Sunday, trained with Bath on the Monday night and then, on the Wednesday, ran riot all over the Recreation Ground as his new colleagues put 87 points on Swansea.

"It was only the second game of union I'd ever played - the first was against Bath at Twickenham back in May," he says. "I was born in Leeds and if you come from there you play soccer or league, not union. I didn't even watch it on television; on the odd occasion I caught a glimpse of it, I wasn't too impressed. It was so stop-start, all kicking and no running.

"You can imagine how I felt at the end of the Swansea match, where there seemed to be no stoppages at all. It really was very quick. You wouldn't have thought it possible six months ago, would you?''

Last weekend Robinson was given a first taste of life in the Courage League as part of perhaps the fastest back division ever to take the field anywhere: Paul, Jeremy Guscott and Jon Sleightholme were his fellow threequarters. Bath, self-appointed missionaries of new age rugby, threw it around once again but self-destructed so spectacularly that Wasps overturned what should have been a winning lead and stole the spoils.

"The feeling in the dressing- room was one of extreme disappointment," Robinson says. "We had the game under control and let it slip, which was unforgiveable. But the longer I spend at Bath, the greater the similarities with Wigan become. Every time you go out to play, you face opponents who are ready to turn in the performance of their lives. It's a big game every week and that is what makes playing for either club such a challenge.

"It's exciting slipping into such a dynamic back line, but it's not just about pace, it's about being a rugby player. People ask me how fast I am over 100 metres and I tell them it's irrelevant because pure sprinting doesn't have much to do with carrying a ball under one arm and dodging 15 people intent on burying you."

According to Brian Ashton, the Bath coach who is also a life-long league aficionado, Robinson is a pleasure to work with. "I've never encountered a player so intense in his desire to improve," he says. "Every time he trains, he pumps me with the most detailed questions. When you talk about professionalism, you can hold him up as a model."

"Of course I want to learn," agrees Robinson. "These are exciting times in union and it's a privilege to be part of them." So exciting that he might consider a permanent switch and a shot at an England place? His reply is tantalisingly cryptic.

"Everything is an option. At the moment I'm just looking to play well for Bath during the time available; I'm due back at Wigan in January and I'm contracted to go to Australia in June.

"I don't honestly know what, if anything, will stem from this but even if I decided against playing union full time right now, it wouldn't prevent me from changing my mind at some point in the future.''

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