Robinson the little big man

Owen Slot meets a flanker back to add his brand of steel to England
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FOR the 10-year-olds in gym class at Colston's School, Bristol, the lesson on Wednesday morning a week and a half ago was one to remember. The session was interrupted by the arrival of their instructor's tearful wife complete with their three small children. Mrs Robinson had been reading Ceefax and had come to convey its delightful dispatch - that Andy Robinson had been picked to play for England against South Africa. Hearing the news, after six years in the international wilderness, said Robinson, was "one of the highest moments of my rugby career". Oh, the joys of the television text news service, allowing a bunch of 10-year-olds to be privy to it all.

For most of their lives, this was a moment Robinson had been waiting for. He believes it should have arrived a lot earlier but knows that it would be unwise to criticise Jack Rowell and his selection board by saying so. "You're always hoping you're going to be in the squad," he said, and he grinned and paused - how strong should he be? "A lot of my friends thought I should have been." So is he now playing his best rugby for six years? "Mmm," grin, pause. "I've always played well. Every time I go out on the pitch I expect to play out of my skin, outstandingly."

Robinson is, however, prepared to make a few concessions. In 1989, after an outstanding Five Nations and a British Lions tour, he was dropped and didn't like it. "But Peter Winterbottom," he said. "developed into the all-round open-side flanker - so the selectors were right." By 1993, when Winterbottom retired, he was used to the disappointment. He no longer had to "spit my dummy out", when the England management thereafter opened a debate roughly entitled "Size and the No 7" and declared themselves firmly of the opinion that big No 7s - and not 5ft 10in, Robinson-sized No7s - were the future.

In an ode, used occasionally in speeches, Robinson made his feelings known: "For England's game to be made in heaven, they need small men at number seven." He did not, however, heed his own words. "I then tried to play to the perceptions of what people wanted - like a big open-side. I wanted to show that I could do exactly that," he said. "But I don't think I could, not as well as, say, Steve Ojomoh."

His England aspirations lived on, thanks largely to another little man. "With Neil Back [also 5ft 10in] in the squad," he said, "my thinking was that it would only take one injury and I would be back." he said. But two and a half weeks ago, when the England squad received letters informing them of the training schedule, Robinson's letter box was bare. Again, he began the process of coping with disappointment, but his grief was curtailed after 48 hours. The phone rang; he was back in the squad.

At Marlow, for his first session back, he said: "I had a lot of abuse from the boys. They said they thought the coffin had been nailed shut and were trying to work out how I crawled out."

Quite how, he can best explain himself: "I've always felt that I've had the mental capacity, if things are tough, to hang in there. Part of that is because I hate losing." This mental steel has not been lost on others. John Hall, Bath's team manager, has spoken of it and it was probably part of his sales pitch when he rang Rowell to advocate Robinson's recall. His schoolchildren have noticed it too; at his last school in Bath, where he taught Rowell's children, the pupils gave him a T-shirt that read "If I can't win, I don't want to play".

Robinson's mental capacity for the game also involves remembering every single match he has played and the best opposition too. The best fly-half he has had to face? Jonathan Davies - "very hard to get hold of" - though there is a special mention for Paul Turner: "You're always trying to think what he's thinking. Being able to run at people and decide where to pass to at the very last minute - that's class. Stuart Barnes had it too."

He can also tell you his worst ever personal performance - Bath's Cup defeat by Waterloo in 1992 - and can list straight off his three best. First, England's 28-19 defeat of Australia in 1988 ("The ball fell right for me the whole time. I also happened to be in the right places"); second, England's 11-0 victory over France in 1989 ("I highlight this for the different, defensive style of my performance"); and third, Bath's princely thrashing of Bristol at the Rec four weeks ago.

Luckily for Robinson, his third-best game happened to have Rowell in the crowd. Two days after, Rowell rang him to say that he was back in consideration and a couple of weeks after that his wife was in tears in the gym at Colston's School. One upshot is that Joel Stransky can soon be added to his pantheon of stand-offs and Ruben Kruger, the South African No 7 who he admires, can be judged too.

Has Kruger got any weaknesses? "I haven't spotted one yet," he said. "The one area I would hope to beat him on is attitude." This estimation is delivered with no trace of arrogance. In the same way that he says that he and Back have long been the best No 7s in England, Robinson is just being honest. "I think international rugby is all about heart," he said, looking forward to meeting Kruger, "and I want to show that my heart is stronger than his."