They thought it was all over five weeks ago. Well, it is now. When Jason Robinson limped off the pitch at the French national stadium on 14 September, all bloodied and hamstrung, it seemed that Billy had Whizzed his last on the top-class rugby stage. Instead, the veteran who mounted a one-man Rorke's Drift operation for his country that evening, standing defiant in the face of the 36-0 pool-match slaughter against the Springboks, lived to fight again – and to dazzle with those high-speed dancing feet.
Sadly for Robinson, there was to be no glorious grand finale last night. Having done so much to pick Brian Ashton's red-rose resurrection men up off the floor and get them into a World Cup final against their South African tormentors, the retiring full-back not so much walked off into the sunset as shuffled gingerly there. Struck down by injury once again, this time a damaged shoulder, he watched the last 33 minutes from the bench as Percy Montgomery and Francois Steyn swung their kicking boots and nudged the Webb Ellis Cup tantalisingly out of England's grasp.
Still, it was a triumph for Robinson and for the rest of Ashton's Unlikely Lads that they managed to get so close to keeping the precious gold pot at Twickenham. It looked to be on borrowed time there back in February when England set out on their 2007 Six Nations' Championship campaign with their new head coach in town and with the baggage of eight defeats from their previous nine matches. In hindsight, though, the opening-match win against Scotland at Twickenham has proven to be something of a turning point.
Jonny Whatsisname stole the headlines with a 27-point contribution that day, in his first match for England since the 2003 World Cup final, but Robinson's return was equally sparkling and equally significant. Two years after hanging up his international dancing shoes, he was back at his balletic best, bagging a brace of tries. It was clear then that the man who was born in 1974 was still as lightning quick and elusive as the cartoon character conceived in 1964 whose name he has happened to acquire.
Now 43, Billy Whizz can be found on the magazine shelves back home leaving his pursuers chasing shadows in the pages of The Beano Activity Book. At 33, Robinson has been doing much the same of late. The question last night was whether the real-life Billy Whizz could bring a comic book ending to the story of his 15-year career on either side of the rugby divide.
It was always going to be a World Cup final reprise of one sort or another for the spring-heeled Yorkshireman. Back in 1995 he played in rugby league's global final at Wembley, in an England XIII coached by Phil Larder and beaten 16-8 by Australia. Then, of course, in 2003 he played for England in the union showpiece, scoring their one try in the 20-17 extra-time victory against Australia in Sydney. He did so a as right-wing, sliding home in the left corner.
Last night, in his 562nd game of first-class rugby, Robinson was playing at full-back. That put him in direct opposition to another veteran born in 1974, Montgomery, and it was the bottle-blond Bok who struck the first scoring blow, landing a penalty from 20 metres after Mathew Tait slipped on the greasy turf while attempting to launch a counter attack from deep. Robinson had been ready to roll, bouncing on the balls of his feet outside the young Newcastle centre, but was obliged instead to wait until the 12th minute for his first chance to attack.
A slick feed to Paul Sackey might have come to something more than a penalty had the Wasps wing been quick to spot Robinson looping outside him into space on the right. As it was, Sackey was swiftly wrapped up by Bryan Habana, whose failure to roll away from the tackle gave Jonny Wilkinson the chance to kick the equalising points from the touchline. Robinson's own kicking was not the best in the prolonged manoeuvring for territorial superiority that dominated much of the opening half, though England's last line of defence distinguished himself with a grasping one-armed tackle that stopped Butch James in full-flight.
The England full-back did have one further opportunity to cut loose before the interval but that was from deep and was bottled virtually at source by John Smit, the Springbok captain and hooker. Robinson did not know it at the time, but it was to be his last chance to tango not just in Paris but on the international stage. Seven minutes into the second-half he was cut down and obliged to depart. Still, as the old Wigan Warrior made his painful departure, the damage on the scoreboard was nothing like it had been five weeks earlier: just 9-6 in favour of the Boks.
By the final whistle, though, the gap had stretched to 15-6 and Robinson's retirement present was another World Cup final loser's medal. Not that he would have been drowning his sorrows into the early hours. Robinson has been teetotal since being converted to a devout Christian lifestyle in his Wigan rugby league days by the influence of Inga Tuigamala.
As he prepares to hang up his boots for good now, it remains to be seen how the father-of-five will earn a crust for his family – and whether he will follow in the footsteps of his rugby idol's after-life. Inga the old Wigan winger is now Inga the Auckland funeral director.Reuse content