Alan Watkins: Robinson's problem is public perception

'I've had a tremendous piece of luck, old man. I'm in this rugger case'
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The Independent Online

His difficulty can be simply stated. For a decade or more, England have seen unprecedented success on the rugby field. Previously they had been content to win what was then the Five Nations Championship every so often, with the very occasional Grand Slam, but to spend most of their time in the middle or in the bottom half of the table.

The man who, more than any other, was responsible for the change was, I suppose, Robinson's predecessor, Geoff Cooke. The process came to a triumphant conclusion with Sir Clive Woodward and the 2003 World Cup.

The previous years had not always been a pretty sight. Whereas the Welsh of the 1970s - I mean supporters and administrators rather than players - had been conceited and rather smug and were justly to reap the whirlwind, the English of the 1990s were quite intolerable.

People who had never touched a rugby ball in their lives became enthusiastic supporters of the national side. "God Save The Queen" was rendered with a hitherto unknown fervour at the new Twickenham Stadium; "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" became a subsidiary national anthem; the put-in at the scrum was ignorantly booed or applauded according to whether it went England's way or not; while the then Conservative minister Mrs Virginia Bottomley was booed likewise, perhaps with greater justification, when she put in an appearance at HQ. Indeed, it was this episode - before an Ireland match - which persuaded me that the Tories were going to lose the 1997 election, as they duly proceeded to do.

In short, Robinson's public demands success: whereas Mike Ruddock's audience in Wales are accustomed to bitter failure.

Robinson is not helped at all by the dispute between the Rugby Football Union and the English Premiership clubs, for which he is not to blame. Sale, Leicester and Wasps are asking £135,000 for resting their British and Irish Lions players. The RFU says that the clubs did not rest their players in accordance with the agreement and is accordingly withholding the money. The clubs responded by claiming that there was no agreement.

If this is so, I cannot understand why they think they are entitled to any money at all. The whole dispute is part of a wider one involving the powers, or prospective powers, of the union over the clubs in relation to the availability of international players for training. Already Keith Barwell, of Northampton, and Peter Wheeler, of Leicester, have directed harsh, even aggressive words in the direction of the RFU.

There is now talk to the effect that the dispute about the clubs' money, or the lack of it, is to go to the High Court. Can you imagine the glee this has brought about in Lincoln's Inn, the Temple and the Garrick Club? "I've had a tremendous piece of luck, old man. I'm in this rugger case." "Bless my soul, so am I. Which side are you on?" "I'm for the Rugby Football Union, as the English Rugby Union perhaps rather conceitedly calls itself." "I'm with the other lot of rascals, the clubs." "It'll go on for weeks." "Months."

Then there is the condition of Jonny Wilkinson, again something over which Robinson has no control. Having seen him on television, playing for Newcastle against Llanelli on Sunday, I formed the impression that he was more confident than he had been with the Lions in New Zealand but was not up to the standard which Charlie Hodgson had reached on the same tour. Llanelli won because of the power of their pack in the third quarter and because Gareth Bowen, unaccountably omitted from the initial line-up, kicked a crucial penalty.

The game had one curious feature. At half-time Newcastle substituted their entire front row. London Irish used to go in for this practice a few seasons ago but then it was made illegal. It is still possible to have two props and a hooker among the substitutes and to end the match with an entirely new front row. What you cannot do is to substitute them en bloc.

Rob Andrew, the Newcastle manager, has, I see, been complaining because the referee on this occasion, Nigel Whitehouse, was Welsh rather than neutral. Here he seems to have done Andrew a favour.