Billy Whizz hungry for another bite at the Wallabies

Painful memories are likely to resurface for Australia when Robinson starts to motor in Marseilles, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

There are tries, and there are the tries Jason Robinson put past the Wallabies in the two life-changing games of his rugby union career: the opening Test of the Lions tour in Brisbane six years ago, and the World Cup final in Sydney two years later. Both were beautifully constructed, both were completed with the skill and precision of a surgeon wielding his scalpel like some D'Artagnan of the operating theatre. Robinson was the man who did the completing, construction not being his strong suit.

If Mr William Whizz Esq prolongs his rugby career beyond this coming weekend, it may well be as a direct consequence of his own brilliance. It is possible to imagine England's pack applying the degree of pressure that will prevent the Australians finding their rhythm and allow Jonny Wilkinson to pepper the posts with penalty shots, but the champions cannot seriously expect to win this quarter-final without crossing the Wallaby whitewash at some point in the proceedings. Few individuals in world rugby – and none among the champions' number – are as adept as Robinson at plotting a route to the opposition line.

His return to the England back division, a little over a fortnight after suffering the hamstring injury that ended his defiant lone stand against the Springboks in Paris, comes as a considerable relief to Brian Ashton, the head coach who first persuaded Robinson to dabble with the union game back in 1996. If Paul Sackey, the Wasps wing, has played a blinder in keeping the side's running game afloat in the former captain's absence, there is no legitimate comparison between the two men. Sackey is devilishly difficult to stop once he finds space, but Wallaby back divisions are not noted for giving opponents the freedom of the great outdoors. Robinson wreaks his havoc in the most congested areas of the field, and it is this that sets him apart.

If England lose this tie, Robinson will disappear into the past tense. He retired from club rugby with Sale at the end of last season – it is a sign of the esteem in which he is held at Edgeley Park that he has been awarded a testimonial after the fact, as it were – and will call it quits for good when the world champions reach the end of the road here, although there is a chance he will turn out for the Barbarians against the Springboks at Twickenham in December. Needless to say, he would far rather face the South Africans in a real match in Paris on 20 October.

"We know we have to raise the bar if we're to get through the next two rounds and make the final," he said yesterday, "but we're improving by the game now. It's been a rough road so far in this tournament; even though we beat Samoa and Tonga to get to this stage, we'll struggle against the Wallabies if we make the kinds of mistakes we made in those matches. But I believe we can win this quarter-final.

"Australia are a good side with a good record in tournament rugby and they go in as favourites, but the underdog doesn't always lose. Let's take it to them, get in their faces and see what happens. You don't beat the Wallabies by sitting back and letting them execute their plays."

Forty-eight caps into a career that has brought him almost all the riches of his sport – a World Cup winner's medal, a Six Nations Grand Slam, a Premiership triumph... pretty much everything bar a series victory with the Lions and a Heineken Cup title – he still refuses to contemplate the end. "You never know when your last game will be," he said. "Even when I was carried off the field in Paris with an injury I'd never previously suffered, I felt I'd play a further part in this tournament. That may have been blind optimism on my part, but here I am. I'm delighted to be involved in this game. I've done all the training this week and I'm raring to go."

This will be his ninth union Test against the Wallabies, including his efforts for the Lions in 2001, and during his rugby league days he was every bit as familiar with the Kangaroos. What makes the Australians special? "It's the effect they have on you," he replied. "When you play them, you go into the game knowing that 90 per cent won't do, that 95 per cent won't be enough. It's 100 per cent or nothing, because anything less will see you beaten. They don't change in that sense, and it's the thing that makes them what they are."

Is it conceivable that this England side, so lacking in the stability that lay at the heart of the unprecedentedly successful 2003 vintage, can produce the kind of performance that secured the Webb Ellis trophy? "There is no point in making the comparison," Robinson said. "We're not the same team and we haven't had that stability. But we're where we set out to be at the start of the tournament and we'll be there on Saturday, looking to beat the Australians again. The try I scored in the 2003 final was probably the most important of my career, but I won't reflect on it properly until I finish. And I haven't finished yet."