Robinson bedazzles commuter critics but still rankles with rugby writers

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The Independent Online

While we wait for Clive Woodward's vaunted England squad to engage in the rugby World Cup, let's pay some attention to Jason Robinson. Let's try to figure out how long it will take before the former league hero fully impacts on every member of the rugby-writing fraternity. Maybe never.

Robinson makes no demands on public perception. It isn't necessary to probe for some hidden qualities in his game or to appreciate some subtle role in the tactical scheme of things. He is, quite simply, devastatingly quick with a bewitching sidestep and shimmering feet. When Robinson gets possession there is a palpable sense of anticipation.

Resulting from a trademark jink that took him through the narrowest of gaps and through to the line, Robinson's try in first-half injury time against France at Twickenham on Saturday was his 12th in England colours since switching codes three years ago. In May, he was voted Zurich England Player of the Season. Add top try-scorer, with 10, on the Lions tour of Australia in 2001 and you have a player whose influence should be beyond all reasonable doubt.

And yet there remains a myopic refusal on the part of some critics to accept that Robinson has been integrated into the 15-a-side game; not fully aware of attacking lines; sometimes lax in off-loading the ball; defensive flaws. In all of this you cannot fail to sense prejudice, a blinkered denial of Robinson's intelligent transition. Not, of course, on the part of Woodward, whose ruthless team-building does not allow for the merest flicker of doubt, not the crowds who thrill to the former Wigan hero's explosive interventions, but a coterie of critics whose mindset is shaped by old ills, real and imagined. How often were we told that league skills were superior to those of union, they ask? And how many players have failed to prove the point since the attempt became possible? Thus, the acceptance of Robinson is grudging, never likely to be complete.

My friend Mike Nicholas, an old union and league hand who scored the winning try for Warrington in a Challenge Cup final, sees this as a manifestation of ancient attitudes. "You didn't have to read deeply into what some people wrote when Robinson crossed to union to realise that they resented his presence. Pathetically, they didn't want him to succeed, going on about how difficult it would be for him to absorb the complexities of union. There are differences, but what complexities! Robinson is a terrific footballer who has proved himself in both codes and yet they won't let it rest, picking on him for the slightest mistake. It isn't a prejudice against Robinson, it's an on-going prejudice against league."

Critics leap to their own defence, arguing that Robinson's various skills are best employed on the wing not at full-back, the position he filled against an under-strength France team lacking probably 12 players who could face England in the World Cup semi-finals.

It was only when France introduced some of their regulars that Saturday's match became remotely competitive, a fact that both Woodward and England's captain, Martin Johnson, were quick to concede. "To win the World Cup we will have to be the best-ever England team," Johnson said.

Saturday was no more than a romp, satisfying in response to the defeat in Marseilles a week before but contextually irrelevant. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt at all that this England team is awesome in potential, containing such strength in depth that the players culled yesterday by Woodward can count themselves extremely unlucky.

It mattered not at all to England's supporters, even if they knew that France kept their best men out of the fray. Here, in their minds, was another Twickenham victory to justify the widespread belief that England are on course for their finest hour. Ben Cohen rampant, Jonny Wilkinson's kicking metronomic (a missed conversion only serving to emphasise his excellence), the forwards dominant.

As for Robinson, on the train to Waterloo someone described him as "something else". It is something for his critics to think about.