Jason Robinson: Robinson motivated by zeal of the convert

How a leap of faith saved the career of one of England's most potent weapons in the forthcoming Rugby World Cup
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The Independent Online

As diligently as I scrutinised the list, published this week, of contenders for the honour - dubious honour, some would say - of being included in Ken Livingstone's band of 100 great black Britons, I could find no mention of the rugby union international Jason Robinson. Perhaps the Mayor of London is not a rugby fan, although Ellery Hanley made it, and so did Martin Offiah. Still, if Robinson dazzles at the forthcoming Rugby World Cup, then someone will have to make way. Ms Dynamite perhaps. Or even Seal.

We probably shouldn't get too indignant on Robinson's behalf. As a born-again Christian he is, after all, a forgiving sort. But really, one wonders what more the fellow has to do to earn himself the adjective "great": a superstar in one sport, rugby league, he is fast becoming a superstar in another. And two months from now, the process could well be complete.

We meet in the prosaic surroundings of Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street, London, just along from the lingerie department. Robinson will soon be joining his England team-mates and jetting off to Australia (in fact, they left on Wednesday), but right now he has other fish to fry. His autobiography, Finding My Feet, has just been published and in the Oxford Street M&S he is busy signing copies. One punter asks him to inscribe a book for his sister with the words "see you in heaven". Judging by the man's smirk, I think this might be some sort of in-joke, but Robinson does not demur. The rest he signs "God bless".

When the crowd has melted away we sit down and chat. He is a likeable bloke, smaller and slighter than I was expecting, but tell that to the numerous players he has clobbered in his three years of rugby union, not to mention all the players before that in his eight years at Wigan.

Coincidentally, I have just come from Wigan, I tell him, where I met Dave Whelan, the multi-millionaire owner of JJB Sports and of the town's football and rugby league teams. When I said that I would be meeting Robinson, Whelan conveyed his regards. "I think he's lost a yard of pace since he left us," he opined. I duly pass the message on. Robinson smiles benevolently. "I don't know where he got that from," he says. "I feel better than ever."

We talk about England's prospects in the World Cup, but he merely sounds the mantra that I have already heard from the coach, Clive Woodward, and the captain, Martin Johnson. "The pressure from outside the camp is not as great as the pressure from within," he says. England, he adds, must take each game as it comes. And New Zealand will be formidable opponents, as will Australia, who are world champions after all, while France on their day can beat anyone. Even my tape recorder stifles a yawn.

He is more enlightening when he talks about the difficulties he has had adjusting to a different code, difficulties initially compounded by the fact that he spent his career in league feeling contemptuous towards union. "Yeah, we did call them ra-ras," he confides. "We called it the kick-and-clap game. Because of the class divide, which I have to say is changing, union never had a chance in my eyes. But the way we've been playing with England is very entertaining, everything I didn't think it could ever be.

"I still haven't got that deep knowledge of the game that the other lads have," he adds. "It's a much more complex game than rugby league, of course, and I don't understand the laws as well, and the different patterns of play. One of the main things was the contact area, the rucks and mauls, knowing what to do, getting to grips with the ball presentation.

"I try not to commit myself to too many rucks," he says, with a broad smile, "but there are times when I have to go into contact areas and secure the ball, and then make sure I present it properly. In training, in the early days, the lads would demonstrate the squeeze ball for me, making sure that you get your body real low, and squeezing the ball through your legs so that it's as far from their defender as possible."

His preferred position, he says, is at full-back, although I know that several of his team-mates - among them Mike Catt and Mike Tindall - like to see him on the wing. But what matters is what Woodward thinks, and the coach clearly wants him wearing 15.

"I'm familiar with full-back now," Robinson says. "That's where I play for Sale. That's where I like to play. But having said that, I played on the wing for Wigan for eight years. In any case, the back three move around. I might start at full-back and end up on the wing. We cover and support each other all the time."

He is keenly aware of the gibe that he is not quite tactically astute enough at 15. "But nobody's above criticism. There's no player in the game that hasn't got areas to work on. And with England we set ourselves such high levels. Jonny Wilkinson is a great kicker of the ball but he practises all the time. We all want to go out and play the perfect game, but the perfect game doesn't exist."

Still, the perfect game sometimes seems attainable, he suggests, when he sits in the dressing-room and looks at the men with whom he is about to step on to the field. "You look around and see Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Lawrence [Dallaglio], Jason Leonard, Jonny Wilkinson ... it certainly fills you with confidence."

He also has the confidence of knowing that he is implementing God's will. I ask him, perhaps mischievously, whether he is familiar with the story of Eric Liddell, the Scottish wing who became an Olympic sprinter but in the 1924 Olympic Games wound up competing in the 400 metres because he refused to run in the 100m heats, which were held on a Sunday.

Robinson cheerfully explains that when he came into rugby union he had never even heard of some of the stars of today, so fat chance yesteryear. And no, he hasn't ever seen Chariots Of Fire, which tells the story of how Liddell refused to run on the sabbath.

"Anyway," he says, "the sabbath is a Saturday. Jesus was a Jew, and Jews go to synagogue on Saturdays. I believe that God has made me the way I am, that He wants me to be in the environment I'm in, and that if He wanted me to stop, He would let me know. And I would say, 'if that's what you want, then fine'. But the Bible says the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath."

Clearly, Robinson can run rings round me theologically as effortlessly as he could with a rugby ball tucked under his arm. Interestingly, like other born-again Christians I have met, his usual level of eloquence, which on a scale of one to 10 is about five, increases to eight or nine when he is talking about his faith.

Certainly, the whole subject of his conversion, chronicled in his book, is a fascinating one. There was nothing very godly about his upbringing in a terraced street in a tough part of Leeds, nor about his early adulthood. He never knew his Jamaican father and frequently saw his Scottish mother being battered by his stepfather, Richard Robinson. Later, when his sublime athletic skills had propelled him to fame and fortune with Wigan, he drank heavily and meandered through a series of unsuccessful relationships with women, one of whom bore his child.

"There were times," he tells me, "when I'd go out six nights a week, drinking vodka. When I split up with my girlfriend [Amanda, later to become his wife] after already having a kid with another girl, I admit that for a moment I thought about taking my own life. The funny thing was that on the field everything was going really well. But off it everything was out of control...

"Then I met Va'aiga ['Inga'] Tuigamala [the former All Black who had joined Wigan]. I used to just watch him. He had this smile from ear to ear, and seemed at peace with himself. I had all the things I thought should make me happy - money in my pocket, a house, a car - but I wasn't happy. I wanted what Inga had. I realised he had Christ but I didn't understand it ... I'd never even been to a church."

So Robinson embraced Christianity, got back together with his girlfriend and taught himself to give up the demon drink. He now limits himself to an occasional glass of wine. Not, he says, that it was a straightforward metamorphosis. "I still had problems, I still had the same nature. It wasn't like, hallelujah, everything's okay. I used to think, 'well, I'll go out but I won't drink', so I'd take the car to stop myself drinking, but within half an hour I'd had one, two, three drinks, and just tossed the car keys to someone. Then I read a book which said 'you can't sit on the fence. You either choose God's way or you don't'."

At first, with the zeal of the converted, he used to point out to his Wigan team-mates the errors of their ways. Which naturally went down like a yard of sick. But he is more tolerant now, and a popular member of the England dressing-room. He tells me that there is nobody else in the England team who even believes in God; nobody, therefore, who can relate to his pre-match ritual of drawing a cross on each of his wristbands.

But then they didn't know Robinson the carouser, so perhaps they are more accepting than his former colleagues. Undoubtedly, that played a part in Robinson's decision to switch codes when Clive Woodward came a-courting. He had already changed his lifestyle, so why not also change his sport?

It has worked out better than either of them could have hoped, and as Woodward notes in his foreword to Robinson's book, what the former Wigan Warrior brought to the rugby union party was a valuable familiarity with professionalism.

"At his first team meeting," Woodward writes, "he studiously took notes. I was watching Jason because the other players were watching him. Whatever time training was scheduled to start, Jason would be out 15 minutes before everyone else to get his preparation right. He was setting examples to us all - and you can't overstress this. Ostensibly, the game of rugby union was amateur until 1997 and Jason had been a professional player for years longer than anyone else in the squad."

Since his arrival, Robinson has deployed his electric pace to score 12 tries for England, mostly contributing to victories, although his own favourite came during defeat in Paris, "when we were under the cosh. I got an early ball from the scrum, it was a one-on-one situation, and it was good to sidestep him and leave him for dead. That was just before half-time, if you remember, which gave us some hope, but we still lost, and France won the Grand Slam."

He now, of course, has a Grand Slam under his own belt, after just 21 caps.

But next, next comes the hard bit...

Jason Robinson: Finding My Feet (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99)

Jason Robinson the life and times

Born: 30 July 1974.

Place of birth: Leeds.

Height: 5ft 8in (1.73m).

Weight: 13st 3lb/84kg.

Club: Sale Sharks.

Position: Full Back/Wing.

Nickname: "Billy Whizz."

Lives: Lancashire.

Family: Four children, one from previous relationship.

Club career: Left school with no qualifications and started out playing rugby league as a member of Hunslet Boys Club. Aged 16, he was invited to join Wigan and turned professional the day after his 17th birthday. Played 302 games and scored 184 tries for Warriors, interrupted by four-month spell playing rugby union for Bath in 1996. Made his debut for Sale Sharks after changing codes again on 5 November 2000, against Coventry.

England debut: February 2001, substitute against Italy (21 caps to date).

Lions debut: Scored five tries against Queensland President's XV on 2001 tour to Australia (three caps to date).

Awards: 2002 Professional Rugby Players' Association Player of Year. 2002 Zurich Premiership Player of Year.

He says: "Personal glory is not what it's all about. The team is everything and my duty is to do well for the team."

What they say: "It's up to us playing inside Jason to get the ball to him, and early. The rules are simple: he's special. So, let's give him every opportunity to show just how dazzling he can be." Rob Henderson, Lions centre.