Robinson ready for life across the great divide

England to monitor gifted wing's progress as switch creates dilemma for 13-man code
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The Independent Online

Clive Woodward's preferred option vis-à-vis Jason Robinson, whom he considers to be a diamond of priceless value, is to ignore him completely: an interesting approach, to be sure. But you can just about see where the England manager is coming from. "If Jason switches to union and I don't feel compelled to throw him straight into the Test team," he explained a few weeks back, "it can only mean I already have world-class wings playing world-class rugby." Now that Robinson's long-awaited move to 15-man country is official - he was formally unveiled by Sale yesterday - Woodward can start turning his blind eye.

Clive Woodward's preferred option vis-à-vis Jason Robinson, whom he considers to be a diamond of priceless value, is to ignore him completely: an interesting approach, to be sure. But you can just about see where the England manager is coming from. "If Jason switches to union and I don't feel compelled to throw him straight into the Test team," he explained a few weeks back, "it can only mean I already have world-class wings playing world-class rugby." Now that Robinson's long-awaited move to 15-man country is official - he was formally unveiled by Sale yesterday - Woodward can start turning his blind eye.

Not that the 26-year-old rugby league maestro - 16 major titles with Wigan and 12 Great Britain caps in the space of nine remarkable professional campaigns - will find himself overlooked for any great length of time. Word has it that the red rose hierarchy have already smoothed his path into the England development squad, and if Robinson develops at anything like the speed at which he runs, he will be a Twickenham favourite before the smoked salmon set can utter the words "swing" and "low".

An evangelical Christian whose humility is spiced by an intense dislike of flannel, Robinson spent yesterday telling it like it was. "It would have been easy for me to sign a new contract at Wigan," he said. "I'd probably have been the highest-paid player in British rugby league and I'd have had a testimonial season too. I've had no guarantees from Clive Woodward or anyone else in the England set-up and all the talk of making the Test team or touring with the Lions next summer is just that: talk. I'm really not sure how long I'll take to come to terms with the new game; my only experience of union remains the four months I spent at Bath in 1996. But I look at it this way: if I'm good enough, I'll get picked. If I'm not, I won't even want to be picked."

Few observers harbour serious reservations over Robinson's ability to cross the divide and master the greater complexities of union more completely than any league player in history: during his stay in the West Country, he regularly turned comfortable victories into massacres, even if he also appeared capable of losing his club the odd tight one. "I was ignorant of union at that point - at times, I simply didn't know whether to kick or run or what to do for the best - and the Bath experience relieved me of that ignorance," he said. "You have to respect the game you're playing, and that goes both ways in rugby - league and union are magnificent, challenging and very different sports and they both have a future. It's just that right now, I believe union is where my own future lies."

It is the future of Sale's politically sensitive financial arrangement with the Rugby Football Union, now very much on the back burner, which raises the real questions. When Robinson was first linked with a full-time switch to union, it was Woodward, Fran Cotton and the other big cheeses at Twickenham who were driving the initiative. Their idea was simple and, at the same time, seriously controversial: Robinson would come in on a RFU contract and his wages would be split between club and country. Newcastle and Bristol both showed an interest, but it was only when Sale's stiletto-sharp new owner, Brian Kennedy, beat his rivals to the punch that the solids hit the air conditioning.

"I knew nothing about Jason's availability when I first took over the club: in fact, the first I heard of it was when I attended my first owners' meeting," said Kennedy yesterday. "I thought to myself: 'Hello, Jason's a local boy. I'll see what I can do here.' So we met in a wine bar in Knutsford - I had steak and kidney pud, Jason had grilled fish - and we talked man to man. After the deal was done, we had all this kerfuffle about us sharing the financial load with the RFU. The other Premiership clubs see this as an issue and I sympathise with the concerns they're expressing, so I've taken the heat out of the situation by guaranteeing that we will meet Jason's remuneration in its entirety.

"It's a distraction we don't need, quite honestly, especially as the RFU and the clubs are involved in delicate negotiations on grander issues. The current position is that Jason is a Sale player first and foremost, and he will be paid by Sale. But I've also agreed with the other owners that once the whole business of central funding is sorted, we will have a sensible discussion about Jason and come up with a resolution. It may well be that we can reach an agreement that will hold good for other league players looking to make a career in union."

How many of these players are there? According to Robinson's agent, David McKnight, at least a dozen gifted young 13-a-siders are being given the once over by top-flight union clubs. That will be of serious concern to rugby league, who have already lost a number of 24-carat legends - Phil Larder, Ellery Hanley, Joe Lydon - to the rival code. Robinson's departure represents a blow of a different magnitude, though. Larder and company are back-room boys, albeit respected ones. Robinson is a real live wing threequarter with "superstar" written all over him.

In a sense, rugby league finds itself in a no-win situation as a result of this latest defection. If Robinson cuts the mustard and becomes the first dyed-in-the-wool leaguer to successfully embrace the "other" code, a whole generation of colleagues may fancy their chances of following suit. If he fails, union can stick its nose in the air and say: "Look at that. He may be the best on his side of the fault line, but he can't hack it over here."

Typically, Robinson is not entertaining the thought of failure. "I have a lot to learn, but I learn quickly," he said. "The last time I played union, I didn't understand the rules, let alone the tactics. But I managed to keep an international wing like Jon Sleightholme out of the Bath side, so I must have been doing something right."

* Swansea have been told that their citings against three Stade Français players following last Saturday's Heineken Cup tie cannot be heard as they did not supply sufficient data, although the cases brought by Stade Français against two Swansea players were properly lodged and will be heard later this week. The French champions cited Garin Jenkins and Andy Moore, while Diego Dominguez, Fabrice Landreau and David Auradou were cited by Swansea.

JASON ROBINSON'S RIVALS AS ENGLAND'S WING COMMANDER

DAN LUGER

16 caps, 12 tries

The best left-wing in Europe? Well, Christophe Dominici and Shane Williams would beg to differ, but Luger's form for Saracens this season suggests that he is a Test Lion in-waiting. Robinson is ultra-quick, but he would have his work cut out to beat the former Harlequin over 100 metres.

AUSTIN HEALEY

32 caps, 10 tries

Precisely the kind of all-singing, all-dancing union craftsman who might make life difficult for a new boy like Robinson. Clive Woodward bases so much of his attacking strategy around Healey's unorthodox approach to wing play that it is difficult to see him making an immediate change here.

BEN COHEN

6 caps, 5 tries

The Northampton wing has size and pace on his side, but his defensive frailties sometimes make him look like a newcomer to the union game. Robinson would fancy his chances of wrong-footing Cohen in a head to head, but, by the same yardstick, Cohen would back his poundage at close range.

IAIN BALSHAW

4 caps, 0 tries

By common consent, the next in line for a red rose berth. The Bath wing could do with some of Robinson's muscle, and his front-on defence is not in the league man's class. But Balshaw has wit and instinct and imagination to help him through the minefield. In union terms, he is a natural.

DAVID REES

11 caps, 2 tries

Clive Woodward's favourite wing until his body gave up on him, Rees is now back in tow with Bristol and beginning to recover lost ground. Among the best finishers in the Premiership, he has a hard-bitten northern streak that allows him to punch above his weight. In that sense, he is Robinson-esque.

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