Little big man seeks balance in a fast lane all of his own

The Jason Robinson interview: England's born-again star leaves rivals grasping at thin air
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Tom Scott was six years old yesterday. He is passionate about rugby in general and Sale Sharks in particular, which is cause for comment in the heart of Manchester United country. He was due to celebrate his birthday at the quarter-final of the Par-ker Pen Shield against Bristol until the match was shifted from Saturday afternoon to Friday night. His mother said the kick-off was too late, even for a brand-new six-year-old. So, instead, he went to the team's final training session on the eve of the game, which is how young Tom came to be pursued half the length of the Heywood Road pitch by the most explosive runner in modern rugby.

It had been a long day for Jason Robinson, but not so long that a small boy in smart boots and Sharks hat should be denied the moment of a young lifetime. There was nothing false about the exchange; the only posing was done for the benefit of Mrs Scott's camera. Wandering by, Stuart Pinkerton, Sale's gentle giant of a back-row forward, was reminded of his days with David Campese in Sydney. The team strolls out, 100 boys line up, every one wanting Campo's autograph. "You know kids," says the Australian. "They're innocent, they go for who they want. Now if it was girls lining up outside the nightclub, that might cause a few more problems." And he laughs, knowing full well that Robinson, the born-again Christian, and nightclubs have long since parted company.

Robinson began his day early with a photoshoot. He stands in the cold while a photographer flaps about him and two students from Manchester University act as the stooges in the tableau. An hour and a half later, Robinson is hurling himself full length over the try-line in a promotion for Powerade, one of his new sponsors. One hundred and eighty four tries in 310 games for Wigan, five in one half on his debut for the Lions. This is Robinson's office space. Marty Hulme, Sale's Australian fitness coach, would have smiled at the sight. Moments earlier, he had been recalling his first memory of Jason Robinson. "I'd been asked to help John Monie at Wigan, in 1998, and I was going through a battery of fitness tests with the players, one of which was the standing long-jump. Now, back in Australia, Matt Burke, the Wallabies full-back, held the record for the standing jump of three metres. That's a real class act. No one else had come close. So I'm lining these guys up, yep, two metres, yep, one metre 98, then, bang, Jason pings this leap. I measured it at 3m 17cm and I thought, 'No, that can't be right. Do it again'. Bang, he did 3.18. I knew all about Jason Robinson, of course, but that moment I knew I had something special."

The other strange thing Hulme recalls about those early days was Robinson's lack of overall fitness. His stamina tests and shuttle runs were mediocre for such a gifted athlete. Robinson is what Hulme terms "a greyhound", blessed with natural speed. The key is not development but preservation. "We don't train Jason like the others," Hulme explains. "If we gave him the same weights as the others, he'd bulk up like Arnold Schwarzenegger and lose his speed." Instead, Robinson works several days a week in the hydrotherapy pool, keeping muscles toned and relaxed, which is fine, except that he loathes swimming.

"I remember we had a swimming session at Wigan once and Jason turned up with flippers, snorkel, goggles and a life vest," laughs Hulme. "He jumped straight in the pool wearing the lot. When we played water polo, he got a lilo, sat on that and kept goal." But Hulme's meticulous training schedules have worked. While the rest of the Lions were out on their feet at the end of a gruelling tour, Robinson's electric current barely short-circuited. A month later he was back with Sale, playing in front of 900 people in a testimonial match at Worcester.

His promotional duties over for the day, Robinson returns to the warmth of the clubhouse bar. Sale, a cosy club who regularly punch above their weight, have proved an ideal home for the glamorous recruit, not just geographically the nearest Premiership club to his house in Preston, but a good spiritual fit as well. There is no danger of getting carried away in front of 3,600 spectators and the old wooden Jim Birtles Stand. The humbleness of the surroundings suits the man. Though Robinson's profile has rocketed since his return from Lions duty, in Sale they seem oblivious to the privileged previews on show at Heywood Road.

Those who braved a sodden night on Friday to see Robinson's debut in European competition – albeit against Bristol – witnessed the third phase of Billy Whizz, the character from The Beano who inspired Robinson's nickname. From wing to full-back and on Friday night for the first time at outside-centre in a 25-20 victory, with Robinson doing more than enough to suggest that this might be his future. Clive Woodward, the England manager, was there. When England begin their Six Nations campaign in Scotland next week, Robinson's graduation to chief game-breaker should be complete.

"When I came to union, people said, 'You won't have much space', but they forget I'm at my best in tight spaces, because of my size and speed off the mark," says Robinson. "The main thing is to get the ball in hand as often as possible." It took Bristol four minutes to feel the edge of Robinson's pace as he burst through the slightest of gaps to feed Vaughan Going a simple try. The Australians learnt even quicker. Two minutes and 14 seconds into the opening Test and the moment is still frozen in the mind. Watching on television as the Australian full-back, Chris Latham, shows Robinson the outside, Hulme is thinking: "Mate, I wouldn't do that if I were you". And in the bar at Sale Jim Mallinder, the club coach who sees Robinson's routine brilliance at first hand every day, is equally aghast. A step right, a check left and Latham is clutching Brisbane's night air.

"It was just a split-second decision," Robinson recalls. "I had, what, maybe two metres on the outside, but I managed to stand him up and get through with just centimetres to spare. It wasn't the obvious move, but it's not the obvious move that catches people out, is it?"

In Blackpool that weekend, Dave Swanton's mobile rings. "Your serve," comes the voice, Robinson's way of telling his old friend that life is moving on and up. It was Swanton who first phoned with the news of Robinson's selection for the Lions. "I knew he didn't allow a television in the house at the time because he doesn't agree with a lot of the stuff that's on. He was creosoting the fence when I told him he was a Lion. 'Oh right', he said, 'I'd better get down to the club then'. That was it."

Swanton was the press officer at Wigan Warriors during the club's heyday; now he is operating a similarly friendly and efficient service at Sale, where his son, Dan, has recently been recruited to cope with Robinson's ever-increasing mailbag. An astonishing year, which started inauspiciously on a cold February night in Wrexham when he touched the water bottle more times than the ball, but still scored a try for England A, has moved smoothly through three Tests for the Lions and the ultimate accolade, a stirring of the Barbours at Twickenham. A look down would surely induce a severe bout of vertigo.

"I've not had time to reflect really on what's happened," Robinson says in that quiet, flat, voice. "One of my goals was to play for England, but little did I know that an opportunity would come so quickly or that I would be picked for a Lions tour so soon. It has all been a bit of a dream. I've played almost 10 years of top-class rugby league, so I thought I knew about pressure, but that day walking through the lobby to the bus for the First Test made the hairs on your neck stand up. The place was just packed with people singing 'Lions, Lions'. I think the Australians underestimated both the team and the supporters that day.

"When I was selected for the Lions, I was still learning the game, but I wasn't aiming to spend my time on the bench. I wanted to give it a go and see if I could get in the Test side and I managed it. Now I know that expectations will just get higher. I'm aware of the excitement every time I get the ball at Twickenham. I don't find it a burden. That's good. It's my style, it's the way I have always played. The fans don't know what's going to happen and it's great if they enjoy that and it's great for me if they're behind me.

"But it's one thing to break into the side, another to stay there. A lot of people have played three or four times for England, I don't want that. I want to be a regular member of the team and that means learning to cope with the pressure. There are some very talented players out there – more talented than me – but when the pressure is on, they don't seem to handle it so well. It's one of things that I'm most pleased with, looking back. I've always been consistent."

Robinson's success in Australia has pitched him into highly commercial company. Powerade's marketing strategy has been based on a select number of high-profile personalities – Luis Figo, Thierry Henry, Matthew Pinsent and Dean Macey. As Robinson crossed that try-line in Brisbane, the broadest smile could be found on the face of Cliff Bloxham, head of Octagon UK, one of the world's biggest sports agencies. Bloxham had been at Twickenham when England played Italy and knew as soon as the little figure emerged that here was a player trading in anticipation, that most marketable of qualities. Octagon signed Robinson soon after and persuaded Cadbury, already a youth sponsor of rugby, to broaden their portfolio. The company was right for Robinson – child friendly, related neither to drink nor tobacco – but backing such a relative novice was still a gamble. In Brisbane, the lottery ticket proved a winner. "Jason's not just a rugby player any more," says Bloxham. Only Jonah Lomu has yet matched the six-figure fees commanded by top-class footballers for boot contracts in the UK. But Robinson is straying into that sort of bracket, heading beyond the commercial markers for the sport set down by Will Carling and Jerry Guscott.

"I could work 24 hours a day if I wanted to and that's one of the dangers," says Robinson. "Forget the pressures of playing, the hardest thing for me now and until I finish will be to get the balance right in my life. I'm having to learn to say no and that's hard, but it's right for my family.

"I've been under a lot of pressure this past year and at times I've taken the pressures home. Though people don't see it, you go home absolutely shattered and it must be hard for my wife to cope with that because I'm probably not the best of company. It's hard too for the kids to accept that dad's away from home more often, so I've got to sort out the things I've got to do and those that I don't have to do."

Before he walked into the dressing room at Sale, Robinson studied photographs and profiles of all the players so that he knew them all by their Christian names from the first moment. It is increasingly rare for Robinson to pass unrecognised these days. England is starting to expect. The beauty is that the man is still a child at heart. Just ask little Tom Scott.

Biography: Jason Robinson

Born: 30 July 1974 in Leeds.

Status: Married to Amanda.

Height: 5ft 8in. Weight: 186lb.

Position: Wing, full-back, centre.

League highlights: Scored 184 tries in 310 matches with Wigan and still holds the joint record of scoring tries in six successive Great Britain Test matches.

Plays for: Sale (80 career points from 16 tries).

England rugby union debut: 17 Feb 2001 v Italy.

International appearances: England 8 caps (20 points), British Lions 3 caps (10 points).

Memorable quote: 'I don't think I've ever played against anyone smaller than me.'

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