Jason Robinson has spent the best years of his sporting life mixing it with the big boys, the vast majority of whom are far bigger than him. Even young whippersnappers he had not previously heard of and would not have recognised had they been sunning themselves on his own patio, like Tom Philip of Scotland, turned out to be twice his size. But in the common run of things, Robinson's shortcomings in the height and weight departments are a glorious irrelevance. Genius is a gift from on high, physical stature a mere accident of DNA.
The waters are muddied when the common reaches the end of its run and rarity takes over; when an opponent demands to be measured on a scale above and beyond the metric. This afternoon, when Mr William Whizz Esq plays in midfield for England at Twickenham, he will find himself confronted by a Dubliner whose talents are every bit as unnatural as his own, and who can supplement those talents with a depth of experience the Yorkshireman cannot even begin to rival. His name is Brian O'Driscoll, and he will conduct the most thorough of examinations - not merely of Robinson and his credentials as an international centre, but of Clive Woodward and his entire tactical approach to this Six Nations' Championship.
Woodward has a Big Idea, and it excites him. Like many Big Ideas, it was born of necessity; denied the formidable midfield presence of Mike Tindall, the Bath three-quarter who blew a gasket scoring a try against Saracens only five weeks after playing a blinder in the World Cup final in Australia, the coach found himself scratching around for an outside centre. He had long wondered whether Robinson, a master escapologist with a forest animal's instinct for the tiniest cracks and crevices, might cause more damage in the most heavily populated areas of the field than he ever managed on the wing, or by hitting space from full-back. Here was an opportunity to experiment.
From this train of thought, he developed the notion of a "back four", whereby the full-back, the two wings and the outside centre would engage in a fluid, free-form style of attack based on nothing more organised than whatever seemed right at the time. It would be anti-position, anti-regimentation, anti-plan and entirely unpredictable - more Pollock than Poussin, more Ornette Coleman than Duke Ellington. Against Italy, it brought Robinson three tries; against Scotland, who tackled like fury, it brought him none. Today, with O'Driscoll and the tap-dancing Gordon D'Arcy on the other side of halfway, we should discover the truth.
There are those who believe England are right to give Robinson the ball as often and as quickly as possible, and allow him to take it from there. Stuart Barnes, the former England outside-half and a strategist of international repute, is not convinced. He wonders whether England are not in danger of disappearing up their own rear ends with all this unstructured radicalism. Barnes is no conservative but he is no anarchist, either. To win a serious game of rugby, players must know precisely what they are doing, and when they are supposed to do it.
All of which begs the question: is Robinson a centre at all? He can certainly beat a man and his finishing is close to O'Driscoll quality. But he rarely, if ever, produces the kind of killer pass that distinguished the best of his predecessors in the position. Jeremy Guscott may have been considered an individualist by the ill-informed but, in reality, he was the opposite. He looked a million dollars in space, but he also created it for others with the weight, timing and variety of his distribution. He was a wonderfully organised defensive player, he could kick beautifully and he could threaten without appearing to do anything whatsoever. Of these last three attributes, Robinson can lay claim only to the final one.
"Let's face it," Robinson said this week. "I'm playing centre because people are injured. But now that I'm in the position - and I feel very privileged that Clive has paid me the compliment of trusting me in this role at this level - it's important that I play to whatever strengths I have. I'm not a big, hard 'bosh' man like Mike Tindall, so it would be pretty daft to follow a plan that involved me taking up crash ball all afternoon. I do different things, and that is reflected in the structure we're using."
So there is a structure, after all. "Of course there's a structure," he continued. "There is an awful lot of structure attached to our game at the moment. This is international sport we're talking about, and while certain players are encouraged to play it as they see it, a team doesn't achieve what we've achieved by ripping everything up and simply allowing everyone to do what they feel like doing. I would agree that there is an adventurous spirit in the squad, a feeling that we want to use every attacking option open to us. But we work incredibly hard in training to cover all the bases. When it comes to match day, we know exactly where we're going, and how we intend to get there."
Barnes argues that Robinson's free rein inhibits some of the equally dangerous players around him, not least the more sophisticated Will Greenwood. Robinson does not buy the argument, although he accepts that against Scotland, there were moments when he and others "got a little carried away" and ended up spending too much time in contact. It is not an error he can afford to repeat today, for O'Driscoll and D'Arcy have the pace, the footwork and the opportunism to make him suffer for his sins.
He knows precious little about D'Arcy, who replaced the more forthright Kevin Maggs following a series of hot performances for Leinster in the Heineken Cup and a striking contribution against the French, who understand a thing or two about midfield play, in Paris. O'Driscoll, on the other hand, is no mystery to him. The two men trained together for seven weeks and played in the same back division when the Lions toured Australia in 2001.
"I know I'm going up a level in this game, because Brian is a world-class operator," Robinson conceded. "How would I describe him? Quite simply, he is one of those very rare players blessed with the ability to make something of nothing. If we give him space, he'll punish us. By the same yardstick, the Irish would be well advised not to give us too much in the way of space, because we also have players who know what to do with it. We want to play - really play, in all areas of the field. We want to test ourselves in pressure situations and explore every attacking possibility.
"It is a mindset that suits me. Looking back on the World Cup, we were a fairly frustrated bunch throughout the tournament because we struggled to perform as we'd trained to perform. We got ourselves into the wrong mental state somehow, and while we won the competition, we didn't play our best rugby. I had the feeling then that there was so much more to come. Since I've been in the side, I can remember only one game in which I felt we'd approached our potential, and that was against the Wallabies in Melbourne last summer. It should be happening more often."
Tindall is back in the red-rose mix now, and Robinson has no idea whether Woodward will continue with the present formation once the Bath man returns to optimum fitness. "I'm just a piece in the jigsaw," he said. "It is entirely Clive's decision as to how he puts it together." This uncertainty is what gives this afternoon's midfield contest its fascination. If O'Driscoll and his apprentice give Robinson the run-around, one of Iain Balshaw, Josh Lewsey and Ben Cohen will find themselves out on their ear when the Welsh come to London in a fortnight's time, for the Whizzard will resume his place among the back three.
If, on the other hand, Robinson presses all the right buttons... what then? Meetings with the likes of Aaron Mauger, Daniel Carter and Tana Umaga in New Zealand this June? The pulse is already pounding.Reuse content