The last time Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne – altogether now: “Give us an ‘A’...” – finished second in a game of thud and blunder on their own patch of French soil, Gordon Brown was resident in Downing Street, the Liberal Democrats were a party who would have no truck with a hike in university tuition fees, the All Blacks were still trying to figure out how to win a world title… and George Robson had a full head of hair.
“That takes me back – I just about remember those days,” says the Harlequins lock, in the kind of “just my luck” tone commonly adopted by those poor sods charged with visiting Les Jaunards: a team boasting an unbeaten home record that stretches even further than their own unfeasibly long official name.
It was in November 2009 that Biarritz found a way to ransack the sporting fastness known as – cue another deep breath – Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. Since then, Clermont have strung together the best part of 70 consecutive victories at the stadium: club rugby’s version of Eden Park in Auckland, where New Zealand have not lost for almost two decades.
Generally speaking, it would be in Quins’ nature to fancy their chances of bucking the trend: they have, after all, recorded significant Heineken Cup victories in France just recently, winning in Biarritz last season and in Toulouse the season before that.
But they are not quite themselves at the moment. The Londoners lost two unusually substantial tight forwards, the prop James Johnston and the lock Olly Kohn, at the end of last season and have yet to fill the holes, either physically or figuratively; they have injury hassles right, left and centre; and they are struggling for the rhythm and tempo that made them so irresistible in their Premiership-winning campaign of 2011-12.
If they are not to be overwhelmed in the Auvergne tomorrow – and Clermont are in the mood to take things out on someone, having lost narrowly to Racing Métro in Paris last weekend – Robson will have to stand very tall indeed. Happily, he is just the man to rise to his full height when the situation demands it.
Even more than the current England captain, Chris Robshaw, or the occasional one of yesteryear, Nick Easter, the 27-year-old Midlander is the fixed point in the Quins pack. If Robshaw is injured or away on international duty, the club can turn to Luke Wallace or Maurie Fa’asavalu. If Easter is indisposed, Tom Guest steps up. Robson? As things stand, he is a man alone and pretty much irreplaceable.
“I’ve played a lot of rugby in recent seasons, which is how I like it,” says the man who did not miss a single Premiership or Heineken Cup game last term and has started this one in the same way. “The thing is, I feel settled. I live locally [close to the Quins training complex on the outskirts of Guildford] and I love the spirit of camaraderie we’ve developed here.
“A lot of us came through the academy together – I’ve known some of these blokes since I was 16 and been playing with them since I was 18 – and the closeness of the support network means a lot to me. I see the same spirit amongst the young players coming through the academy now and it makes me want to be a part of it even more.”
So how does a player at the heart of the leadership group – one of the principal go-to men for the younger generation – approach a challenge as daunting as relieving a team as good as Clermont of their home record? “It will be pretty hard over there,” he says, an ironic smile accompanying this statement of the obvious. “The perception amongst the rugby public is that we’re struggling as a club – that we’ve lost three games at home, lost some players and lost our way a little. But perception is all it is, and it’s none of our business what outsiders think of us. It’s not something we can control.
“From our point of view, we have to concentrate on the things we can influence. Personally, I’m thinking about my set-piece work: how do I deal with a line-out operator as accomplished as Julien Bonnaire? How do I get myself on to the front foot against Nathan Hines or Jamie Cudmore or Loïc Jacquet, or whatever big lump they put against me?
“I’m also preparing to work my bollocks off – I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course – and make a positive statement as a leader of the group. If I can do that, the younger guys will be even more desperate to throw the kitchen sink at it.
“I love playing these big games in France, because it’s a place where you find out about each other in the course of sticking up for each other. If we do nothing else over there this weekend, we’ll do that. And I have no doubt that the less experienced players will do their bit. If it turns out that people like Kyle Sinckler [the 20-year-old tight-head prop] or George Merrick [the 6ft 7in lock just out of his teens] get a chance, I’ll back them to have a right go at it. Why shouldn’t they? They don’t know any different.”
In June of last year, straight off the back of his club’s memorable Premiership Grand Final victory over Leicester at Twickenham, the Stourbridge-born, Bromsgrove-educated Robson led England’s midweek team in two matches high on the South African veld, against opponents drawn from a variety of Currie Cup provincial teams. No one was ever more deserving of the honour. Robson had all the right attributes – consistency of performance, excellent communication skills, a deep regard for the shirt – and he delivered in spades.
Twelve months later, he was not quite so satisfied with his lot. When England headed to South America for a three-match tour, they went without him. “Yes, I was available; yes, I would have liked the opportunity to go,” he says, his cheerful expression darkening suddenly. “For whatever reason, it didn’t happen.” The fact that neither Joe Launchbury nor Courtney Lawes was chosen for Lions duty in Australia – the direct consequence of the heavy Six Nations defeat in Cardiff on Grand Slam day – and so were available for red rose duty did not help Robson’s cause, but the rejection still hurt.
“There are a lot of bloody good second rows in England,” he says, “and I’d like to think I’m one of them. It follows that I still have my eyes on that first full cap: I may be an old man here at Harlequins, but 27 is no age at all for a second-row forward in most teams. For me to move up the rankings, three things have to happen: I need to be playing well, I have to be on the radar and I must grab my chance when it comes my way. I feel my form is good and I’m still in the England Saxons squad. Let’s see what happens with the third part of the equation.”
An upturn in Quins’ fortunes would surely help. There have been flashes of the fast, high-energy rugby that brought them such riches 18 months ago – their performance at Worcester last month bordered on the brilliant – but there has been a sense of slow drift about them. Last weekend’s defeat by Scarlets at the Stoop, which could undermine their entire European campaign, was a low point.
“Conor was not happy,” Robson confesses, referring to O’Shea, his director of rugby, “and that unhappiness has been the theme of the week. It’s uncomfortable for us, knowing that we played poorly and being reminded of it by the coaches, but as players we need that clarity of message. We’ve been honest with ourselves in our group discussions and I think we’ll respond in the right way.
“We all know what’s being said about us out there and it comes as a shock to the system because it’s been quite a while since we found ourselves in the middle of a bad patch. But we’ve been through worse. I look back at the year we were relegated, at the dogfight seasons we went through, at the ‘bloodgate’ affair and all the stuff that followed. We can handle this, I’m sure of it. We’ve been on a long upward curve; now we’re in a dip. The answer? Deal with it and move on.”Reuse content