Any Englishman who ever felt spiritually emasculated by Australia's domination of affairs on the cricket field, the tennis court, the hockey pitch and, naturally, the green rectangles of both rugby codes, need only to buy himself a video of the 2001 Lions tour, sit back in his favourite armchair, reach for a beer - warm and flat, just how the Aussies don't like it - and wallow. It will not be long before he sees Jason Robinson, twinkle-toed and jet-propelled, Fred Astaire-ing his way through a Wallaby defence that had seen him coming from miles away, yet could not do a damned thing to stop him.
The discriminating viewer will then drink up, hit the "off" button and retire to bed. Sure, there were other wonderful moments in that three-Test series, but as the story unfolded, another wing assumed control of proceedings, and he was not clad in red. Joe Roff, resplendent in the green and gold of the world champions, scored the tries that really mattered, striking twice in the second match here on Aussie Rules territory to square the argument and give the Wallabies the momentum they required to nail things down in the more familiar surroundings of Sydney.
Robinson and Roff both operated as left wings two years ago, and were rarely thrown together in hand-to-hand combat. Robinson did help manufacture a try for Dafydd James in the Brisbane Test by appearing on Roff's flank to create an overlap, while Roff side-stepped the Yorkshireman's cover tackle to score the second of his tries in the Melbourne match, but by and large, they spent the series some 80 metres apart. Today, though, they will see the whites of each other's eyes from first whistle to last in a contest fit for the most discerning of connoisseurs.
"Roff is a good player - a very good player, in fact" Robinson admitted this week. "When you are a world-class team chasing the world-class prizes, he's exactly the kind of player you need on your side - someone who can change the course of a match by finding that extra something and producing it at the big moment. He did that against the Lions by scoring an interception try and then producing a quality finish from turnover ball, the kind of try-from-nowhere job that really hurts you. There is no doubt in my mind that Roff is one of the principal threats to England in this game."
As recently as a couple of years ago, Robinson would not have known Roff from Sir Les Patterson; he was too busy accumulating fame and fortune in the 13-a-side game, smashing headlong in to the likes of Wendell Sailor, the Lomuesque hulk who scored 110 tries in 189 league games for the Brisbane Broncos before taking the union shilling last year. As coincidence would have it, Sailor will play on the Wallaby right wing today. Had Robinson not been shifted from left to right via the full-back position in the 23 months since he last set foot in Australia, he would have renewed old acquaintances with Sailor in the most direct manner imaginable.
Sailor has yet to capture the hearts and minds of the Wallaby public; certainly, his impact on international union has been infinitesimal compared to Robinson's, who sent a squillion volts pulsing through the sport with that one tap-dancer's shuffle at The Gabba and has barely stopped tripping the light fantastic since. John Eales, a great Australian lock forward and captain, identified Sailor as a prime capture for union some years back and it was not difficult to understand his reasoning, given the man's 6ft 3in, 17st dimensions. (Robinson, 5ft 8in and 13st 2lb, is a veritable midget by comparison). Yet the subtleties of the 15-man game have exposed the Queenslander in all his deficiencies and left many observers wondering whether he might be a waste of space.
It is not an argument that impresses Robinson in the slightest. "I've had many a clash with Wendell down the years and I hold him in high regard," he said. "I don't care what form of rugby he's playing; give him space and he'll be down on you like a ton of bricks. Did you see that try he put past Wales last weekend, from his own in-goal area? That was quite something in anyone's book. He must be doing something right, because he keeps getting selected for one of the best sporting teams in the world. Believe me, Wendell has a tremendous amount to offer."
What really gets Robinson's goat, in so far as anything disrupts the deep-seated Christian serenity he has developed since abandoning the lure of the night-club for the refuge of church and family, is the average southern hemisphere pundit's refusal to accept that England have things to offer, too. The local buzz-words on this tour have been "pragmatic", "limited", "one-dimensional" and "negative", and all of them have been used to beat the European champions over the head. Robinson would not claim to be the greatest union authority on earth - despite the sharp improvement in his kicking game, his learning curve remains almost vertical - but he knows enough to take umbrage at what he sees as an unfair and ill-considered stereotyping of his team.
"All I've heard over here is stuff about the New Zealanders and Australians playing exciting, attractive running rugby on hard, fast pitches - the suggestion being that we prefer to play boring rugby on cabbage fields. It's nonsense, isn't it? I can't understand for the life of me where it comes from. Last week's match against the Maori was played in pretty desperate conditions, and it was obvious to anyone with the slightest feel for the game that the rugby was going to be pretty restricted. As for the Test against the All Blacks... well, that was as tight and physical as they come.
"I would agree that we didn't play in Wellington as we had planned. Our unforced error count was way too high - we hammer ourselves as a team about the forced errors we commit, so you can imagine how we react to the unnecessary ones - and having trained all week to perform in a certain way, it's fair to say that we expected far more of ourselves than we managed to deliver. Not one of us sitting in the dressing-room after the victory felt he had performed as he would have wished. But we did actually win the match, despite it all. That has to count for something.
"If conditions are good, as they should be under the closed roof this weekend, and we get the fundamentals right, I believe we will demonstrate that we play rugby worth watching. I am also confident that the people in the stadium will be well satisfied with what they see from us. We are in Australian Rules land here, an area where rugby has never counted for much. We could do with putting on a show, not just as a means of making up for a relatively poor performance in New Zealand, but as a way of growing the sport ahead of the World Cup. This Test is a big opportunity for all sorts of reasons."Reuse content