Red Robbo ready with a fast answer to his critics

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The Independent Online

Jason Robinson proved himself once on a Lions tour; four years on, it appears he will have to do it again. "When you have a reputation and you don't beat six men and score a try you're deemed not to be playing well," said the rugby league convert who won hearts and minds in the blink of a try against the Australians in 2001. "What's ridiculous is that I can watch a game back on tape and the so-called experts aren't even criticising the right thing."

Jason Robinson proved himself once on a Lions tour; four years on, it appears he will have to do it again. "When you have a reputation and you don't beat six men and score a try you're deemed not to be playing well," said the rugby league convert who won hearts and minds in the blink of a try against the Australians in 2001. "What's ridiculous is that I can watch a game back on tape and the so-called experts aren't even criticising the right thing."

Robinson is thinking in particular of the recent play-off semi-final with his club, Sale, at Wasps. But if the television commentary sticks in his craw - "They said I missed all those tackles, but there was only one, when I happened to lose my footing" - it is undeniable that this past season has been Robinson's most problematic in terms of public perception of his form.

Whispers abounded that when he tore a ligament in his thumb during England's Six Nations Championship defeat in Ireland, it saved at the very least a debate over his place in the national team. Robinson, remember, was captain at the time, as stand-in for the injured Jonny Wilkinson.

"I can't say I've been scoring three tries and giving a man-of-the-match performance," said Robinson, who missed England's last two matches, against Italy and Scotland, but returned to skipper Sale to third place in the Premiership and qualification for the Heineken Cup. "But I'm always helping to create for others. We joke about it at the club: I pull the defenders my way and Steve Hanley and Mark Cueto get all the tries."

Robinson's fist punching a celebratory hole in the Brisbane night air is an indelible image of the Lions' last venture Down Under. It was the First Test, and from this usually understated individual it was a damburst of emotion - and, he says now, of vindication. "I'd been in rugby union less than a year, and all the talk around the Lions was I would just be this impact player. There had been a massive build-up, and everyone was pumped up and ready to go. With all the noise of the fans, who made a sea of red in the stadium, to score like that and so early in the game was an amazing release. I look back now and it was a brilliant day."

The red sea will be there again in New Zealand, and if Robinson is to please them not part them he will draw on his customary inspiration: his Christianity. "I know it's a mainly Christian country and I have a few friends there who I will hang out with and who will take me to church. At the right time, I will meet up with them and just get some fellowship." He has arranged to catch up with Inga Tuigamala, the former All Black wing who had a thoroughly profound influence on Robinson's game and life when they played together for Wigan.

But what of Tuigamala's successors in the black jersey? Robinson, in common with most of the English Lions, can draw inspiration from wins over New Zealand at Twickenham in 2002 and Wellington in 2003. On the latter occasion, the scoring phenomenon that is Joe Rokocoko made his All Black debut.

"Come game day you've got to know your opponents and what they're capable of," said Robinson. "But I don't tend to go off names, partly because I don't know many of the New Zealanders, and partly because rugby is about how you handle the pressure yourself at that moment on the day.

"Thankfully we have had that experience of beating them. They have world-class players, but there's no doubt the All Blacks are beatable."

This sounds much more like the resolute Robinson we got to know and admire in 2001 and beyond: the back- three dazzler of the dancing feet and the Teflon jersey. He got a second try for the Lions in the Third Test against Australia in Sydney, and another for England in the same city in the 2003 World Cup final. Overall, he has 24 tries in 42 internationals.

Robinson's clean-cut image endures, and he is one of the faces of a Lions-themed advertising campaign for Gillette, rubbing shoulders and comparing razors with Brian O'Driscoll and Gavin Henson at a changing-room mirror.

Robinson and O'Driscoll have been this way before, as room-mates in Australia. There was nothing odd about "BOD", as O'Driscoll is known, but it was a different story with another Ireland centre, Rob Henderson.

"I could handle the cigarette-smoking," said Robinson with a smile, "but the snoring was the final straw. I had to switch rooms."

The more serious knowledge common to Robinson and O'Driscoll is the burden of leadership. "It has been a tough year for me with the added pressure of captaining Sale and England," said Robinson. "I have spoken to Brian about how to manage it. You go away with your country then you come back to your club for one session to prepare for a match, and I have realised how hard that is. You can't just do your own role and then slot back in.

"In the autumn when I was away with England, Sale lost three games on the trot, and all of a sudden the guys were down and I had to make sure that we got them back up again. It was a great learning experience for me in different areas."

Four years on, and still keen to learn. Do not discount this Red Robbo striking the All Blacks where it hurts.

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