Clock ticking on Robinson's search for the lost aura

A new approach but old faces - the coach needs to get the balance right
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The Independent Online

"We have the ability to win the World Cup," he declared. "I have a driving ambition which is all about winning. My passion is England winning, no matter what sport we're playing. I come from a background where everything is about winning; it's about having that winning mentality and winning edge."

In case you missed it, defeat was not a feature of Robinson's vocabulary and, indeed, he got off to a promising start with a fine victory over South Africa at Twickenham. Charlie Hodgson, taking over from the injured Jonny Wilkinson, delivered a virtuoso performance on behalf of the world champions against the then Tri-Nations champions. He contributed 27 of England's 32 points, going through the card with a try, two conversions, five penalties and a drop goal.

Farewell Sir Clive, farewell Johnno, get well Jonny but don't rush back. The new-age euphoria lasted all of a week before Australia arrived at headquarters and did a Ned Kelly, waltzing off with a 21-19 victory.

If it was a wake-up call, Robinson overslept. In the Six Nations England, who were odds-on favourites, finished fourth. Robinson has some catching up to do, beginning with the visit of the Wallabies on Saturday.

He finalises his starting XV today and, beginning at full-back, there is a question mark. Following the retirement from Test rugby of Jason Robinson, who was not only the No 15 but also the captain, England are not spoilt for choice.

Enter Mark van Gisbergen, a New Zealander who no sooner qualified on grounds of residency than he was ushered into the élite. Van Gisbergen had been outstanding for Wasps, but in the last month he suffered an acute attack of the collywobbles. Maybe he was due a loss of form or maybe it was brought on by the prospect of playing for England.

The upshot is that Robinson suddenly has a dilemma - does he switch Josh Lewsey to full- back? That would allow him to play the born-again Ben Cohen and Mark Cueto on the wings, producing a deadly looking back three. Van Gisbergen should be given his chance. You will not find Wasps playing Lewsey at full-back.

In any case, Robinson should be wary of going in with only one specialist goal-kicker, Hodgson. After the Sale stand-off's pyrotechnics against the Springboks last autumn, he was injured against the Wallabies and England ended up without a kicker.

It was not Robinson's finest hour. He had withdrawn Henry Paul and, unlike the subsequent débâcle involving Mathew Tait, who at least has shown signs of recovering, the Gloucester centre went AWOL. So much so that last week Paul was fined three weeks' wages and given a final written warning by Gloucester after missing three training sessions. His brother Robbie winning the Super League Grand Final for Bradford probably had something to do with it.

This time, Robinson seems settled on Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon at centre, with Olly Barkley on the bench, and there is not much dispute about the half-backs. Matt Dawson, who put his international career on the line when he preferred a television appointment to an England training session, is back in pole position. What he has lost in pace he makes up for in experience, and in the transition between now and the World Cup, England need a few chief whips who have been there and done it.

Perhaps a reaction to the 2003 World Cup was inevitable. Both finalists, Australia and England, have since found life difficult, although neither have been tempted to make the radical changes that will, in two years' time, be necessary. Provided he survived last night's Test against France in Marseilles, where he won his 115th cap and overtook Jason Leonard as the most decorated player in history, George Gregan will renew acquaintance with Dawson. If they are drinking the last of the summer wine it is a rare old vintage.

It is in the pack where England have a nice mix of the young - Chris Jones, Steve Borthwick, Lee Mears, Louis Deacon and Matt Stevens - and the not so young - Martin Corry, Danny Grewcock, Steve Thompson, Phil Vickery and Pat Sanderson. The front and second rows are fairly straightforward, and two thirds of the back row pick themselves, with Corry, the captain, at No 8, flanked by his Leicester colleague Lewis Moody. Moody can play openside, but the back row would have a more balanced look about it if he played at six with Sanderson at seven. Mears, Jones and Deacon will get their chance soon enough.

One of Robinson's inheritances from Woodward is the club-country conflict (chapter six), although last week at Loughborough he enjoyed the uninterrupted company of his players, none of whom were allowed to play this weekend. "There will be no calls from the doctor telling me who won't be fit," Robinson said. "We're operating at the highest level of performance here. We need players to play outside their comfort zone.

"In terms of pace and intensity, Premiership rugby isn't particularly close now to Test level. After the World Cup we didn't know how to enjoy being world champions. We just carried on where we'd left off instead of embracing something new, something more free. As a result, we lost a couple of matches we should have won. The old ways won't do any more. I used to be very one-dimensional, but I've learnt there are no absolutes of what's right and wrong."

A year on and the report on Robinson minor has more crosses than ticks, but he has time, a contract beyond the World Cup. He also has the full support of the RFU. In football it would be the kiss of death, but union has yet to adopt the language of doublespeak. Sir Clive, whose own career got off to a rocky start, chose to jump. Whatever else Robinson is, he's no quitter.


BEN COHEN: Like his uncle George, a World Cup winner. For five years, the wing was a tremendous finisher, scoring from short or long range - until last season. Seems to have regained appetite and form.

CHRIS JONES: Scored a try on his debut, and won a handful of caps as flanker until disappearing against All Blacks on 2004 tour. Young, upwardly mobile; a Mancunian candidate for the World Cup.

MATT STEVENS: Former Junior Springbok, has come on a bundle at Bath. Identified by Andy Robinson as epitome of a modern prop - powerful enough in the scrum and a huge nuisance in the loose.