Robinson rejoices in long run

England's desire to expand their playing horizons has prompted a recall for an old-timer who is tailor-made for the modern game, says Steve Bale
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England had become such a distant memory and such a remote possibility that Andy Robinson had intended this to be his final season. Then all of a sudden he bridged the six-year gap and now he wants to carry on to the next World Cup in 1999.

By which time Robinson will be 35 and if his preferred eventuality seems even less likely than his current international recall, then the very fact that he is back in the back row against South Africa at Twickenham proves that here is a man who should never be written off.

"You look at someone like Graham Dawe, or Paul Ackford who wasn't capped until he was nearly 31, or Jeff Probyn: all great rugby forwards who in the twilight of their careers suddenly found everything went right for them," Robinson said. "I see myself in their sort of position."

The difference with the aforementioned England trio is that they were all tight forwards for whom the speedy gadding-about which is Robinson's stock-in-trade was not an imperative. Still, as yet there is no diminution in his powers; on the contrary, it is precisely because he has been playing the best rugby of his life that he has been restored to selectorial favour after all this time, an open side of the old, once-discredited school at 5ft 9in tall.

It is timely, perhaps, to recall that Robinson was never actually dropped by England. Taken to Australia in 1988 as cover for Gary Rees while Peter Winterbottom was taking time out in South Africa, his conspicuous performances forced him into the team for the second Test when England played both Rees and Robinson, two open-side flankers.

That the experiment did not succeed did Robinson no harm, since there then began a personal annus mirabilis in which he appeared in the final tour match against Fiji and all the internationals of the following domestic season which culminated in his choice as British player of the year and what seemed to be the end of his England career.

"Those times are gone and it's difficult for me to compare," he said. "I'd like to think I'm a better player but the honest judgement is that I'm playing the same as I always have. What has changed is the way rugby is played and there's no question that the general trend towards trying to pass the ball before making contact with the tackler has been to my benefit.

"I've been flattered by the remarks people have been making about the way I've been playing this season but the trend away from running up blind alleys and to trying to keep the game more continuous has suited my ball-handling skills and ability to read the game. Simple as that, really."

This is characteristic self-effacement. Robinson insists he never gave up hope of one day adding to his seven caps but there has been a more relaxed quality to his game this season which reflected an end to the anxiety of seeking selection - but paradoxically had quite the opposite effect.

There has been a strange sort of assistance, too, in his job of a year as director of sport at the 285-year-old Colston's Collegiate School in Bristol, which, under Robinson, happens to be one of the finest rugby academies in the land. "The school," he sighed, "is working me hard. I have less time to train and that means my training has to be of higher quality to compensate for the decreased quantity."

The last time he was preparing for an England game as he has been for the past three weeks was for the mournful 1989 defeat in Wales which was more notable for Paul Thorburn's post-match gestures and remarks than anything Robinson - or England, or even Wales for that matter - did.

Then came the reckoning, when Winterbottom had made himself available again and served what was considered a decent stand-down period. England followed the Welsh match by playing Romania after Robinson had been selected for the Lions tour of Australia.

He had played for Bath in the cup final and then, on medical advice, gave up his England place in order to ensure his recovery from a shin injury that would otherwise have threatened his Lions place. As it turned out, he was unfit for the entire tour and might just as well have played in Bucharest.

"As it happens, I don't think it would have made any difference if I had played in that match because I don't think it would have changed the perception of the English management at that time. They were looking to get Peter back in anyway, because he fitted in with their idea of what an open-side flanker should be with all the big hits and the greater line- out presence.

"And even when he retired their perception remained the same, so it never really surprised me when I continued to be left out. In the end I became a lot more philosophical about the England situation; it ceased to prey on me as it did for a while.

"At one stage I thought I was too small; then I thought I was too old. There was never any reason, not until this season anyway, to be encouraged. So now that it's happening it's like being capped again for the very first time. It is an amazingly exciting thing to be going through all those emotions again, right from the moment my wife came into the sports hall with tears in her eyes to tell me."

Here's to you, Mrs Samantha Robinson. Mr Robinson was taking a gym class at the time and she had the three Robinson boys - aged 4, 21/2 and 11 weeks - with her. That such a happy family reunion had become possible was despite the alternative claims of another vertically challenged flanker, Neil Back of Leicester, not to mention the previous antagonism to all such men.

"Every time they picked Neil Back meant they were looking for something different, or even someone like me. The one area I've had to work on and improve is staying on my feet - and that's a strength for Neil and myself because the bigger man patently has greater difficulty bending down to pick the ball up."

And so to Ruben Kruger, the mighty forward he faces today. "People like to pick faults and the line-out is the obvious area they pick on when discussing my play. But I can honestly say I've never had a problem at the back of the line-out. I expect Kruger to have the ball thrown to him.

"For some reason that's not something that happens too often against me in English rugby but, believe me, whatever they throw at me - or anywhere near me - I'll be ready." At last, the long wait is over.