Jason Robinson has given quite enough to English rugby union over the last seven years to warrant a little respect and veneration from his colleagues, but West Country forwards of Phil Vickery's stamp are not exactly renowned for bending the knee, bowing the head and tugging the forelock. "I remember watching Jason when he was playing league for Wigan and Great Britain," remarked the World Cup captain yesterday. "I was eight at the time."
He did not stop at the first joke. He never does when he feels a comic theme coming on. "I was on the field in Brisbane when he put that try past the Wallabies for the Lions in 2001," he continued. "What a magical moment. I remember thinking: this is a very special old man. He plays with a lot of heart and passion, and he's jammy enough to have a bit of skill as well." At which point, the head coach Brian Ashton piped up. "As a good northerner, I used to travel up to Wigan to get my weekly fix of league, even when I was coaching at Bath, and Jason was always worth watching," he recalled. Robinson rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you were eight as well," he said with a grimace.
A semi-final week is not obviously the time for sentimentality, barbed or otherwise, but the reigning champions really could not help themselves on this occasion. Already retired from club rugby, Robinson has two first-class outings left to him: Saturday night's last-four tie with the tournament hosts in Saint-Denis, and an either/or next week – a play-off for third place at Parc des Princes on the Friday, or a slightly more significant contest at Stade de France 24 hours later. This much is certain, however: In two days' time, Mr William Whizz Esq will have 50 England union caps to his name, to go with five Lions Tests appearances and 19 international appearances in the "other" game. It is some landmark. There again, Robinson is some player.
His league debut for Wigan – against Hull in 1992 – was the first of 302 senior games in the 13-man code, and if he did not quite double that tally in union, it was not for the want of trying. Now, some 540 matches into one of the more remarkable careers in rugby history, the end is nigh. Will it be a bitter end if England come up short against the French? Not at all. Robinson is in sanguine mood, and while he will be an implacable foe to the French this weekend, he has the happy air of a man whose day is almost done. Win or lose, he will extract every last drop of enjoyment from the occasion.
"This is why I came out of retirement – to contribute as best I could in a massive year for English rugby," he said. "Playing international rugby has always been special to me, but I came back specifically to experience the kind of game that's happening on Saturday. The victory over the Wallabies was quite a thing: to stand at the back and watch the guys in the pack fire into rucks without regard for their own bodies was an inspiration. The game against France is even bigger. I will dedicate this 50th cap to my wife, who has been behind the scenes making sacrifices so I can continue to do the thing I love doing. I spent two years in international retirement and I wasn't really thinking about coming back, but I'm glad I did. To be playing here, at the highest level – well, it's a great way to finish."
Those who consider Robinson to be a natural left wing – perhaps the purest left wing to play international rugby for anyone in the professional era – are always a little alarmed to see him named at full-back, and the French are perfectly equipped to expose any shortcomings he might have in the role, given the presence of three siege-gun kickers in Damien Traille, Lionel Beauxis and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde. These players made life devilishly difficult for the All Blacks in Cardiff last weekend, and are likely to target Robinson here.
"I don't see any reason to think they'll play it any differently," he agreed. "But by the same yardstick, the Wallabies had a big kicking game, too. As a full-back, you expect to have a lot of ball kicked down your throat. Hopefully, I'll make the right decisions along with the other members of the back three [the wings Paul Sackey and Josh Lewsey] and we'll apply some pressure of our own."
Once Ashton reached the conclusion that Robinson's old club-mate at Sale, the Lions Test wing Mark Cueto, was not quite the full-back he hoped he might be, he had two choices: either to run Lewsey in the No 15 position, or go against his cherished instincts and turn to the man he had watched on so many occasions at Central Park. Ultimately, there was no debate in his mind. He trusts Robinson with his life – or at the very least, with his coaching reputation – and although he would prefer to see him operating on the left flank against Vincent Clerc this weekend, he will not lose too much sleep as a result of this particular needs-must decision.Reuse content