It is almost five years since two of the finest rugby league exponents to emerge in a generation, Henry Paul of New Zealand and Jason Robinson of England, moved from Wigan to Bath for a six-month sabbatical on the far side of the oval-ball divide. Paul never got to grips with the light and shade of the union game; he could not fathom the fact that he could break four tackles and still have his ribs rearranged by some cauliflower-faced prop who just happened to be returning from a ruck that had taken place five minutes previously. Robinson made a better fist of things, but even he left the West Country with a curate's egg of a reputation. "Jason will turn a comfortable victory into a massacre," said the cognoscenti, "but he'll also lose you a tight one."
If the jury is still out on Robinson's mastery of the union code's unique range of disciplines, he can still maximise a victory with a soft-shoe shuffle and a touch of after-burn; his five-try contribution to the British and Irish Lions' 80-point shellacking of a young, committed but ultimately brow-beaten and bemused Queensland President's XV in the sub-tropical humidity of Townsville last Tuesday night proved the point. Over the next month or so, we are likely to discover whether rugby's "Billy Whizz", now a full-time professional with the Sale club, has what it takes to thrive in a real game, as opposed to the comic-book version.
Pound for pound, the deeply devout wing from Leeds favourite music: "Christian"; basic philosophy in life: "Living my life for Christ"; last book read: "The Bible"; three people you'd most like to meet: "One: Jesus. Can't think of anybody else" is the most dynamic physical specimen of the 38 tourists currently enjoying the 10-match jaunt around Australia. Not to put too fine a point on it, he is unique. Robinson resembles a human pinball as he cuts jagged angles from side to side, bounces off would-be tacklers while generating increased momentum with every hit and, once clear, slips into fifth gear without bothering with gears two, three and four. Jonah Lomu may inspire more awe, David Campese may have been more imaginative and Serge Blanco more poetic. As a pure finisher, though, Robinson is the dog's unmentionables. "Hell, he's one exciting bloke," agreed Graham Henry, the Lions coach. "I'd say we're pretty lucky to have him amongst us."
Yet the question is still there to be answered: can he cut it in a tight, claustrophobic Test match against a top-quality defence? At this stage of Robinson's development and he is still only nine months into his union career it is impossible to say for sure. Much of Sale's rugby last season was low-intensity, largely because the Cheshire side were too weak to challenge the big boys in the Premiership playground. England, who fast-tracked him into their Six Nations squad, manacled him to the bench and released him only when they were out of sight of the opposition. Clive Woodward may love his most talked-about recruit to bits, but he has yet to back Robinson unreservedly.
So Townsville Tuesday was a big marker: a full 80-minute game against the best young Queenslanders around and, by extension, some of the brightest prospects in the whole of Wallaby country. The first 40 minutes supported the theory put forward by the nay-sayers that there is more to this union lark than the rugby league fraternity care to admit.
"I think you can say there was an element of 'welcome to Australia' about the opening half," Robinson acknowledged, having found himself on the painful end of Scott Fava's embarrassingly public dump-tackle. It was not the only bad moment. Robinson was penalised twice for failing to release the ball on the floor an old failing and his occasional positional faux pas forced Matt Perry, that unflinching defensive full-back, into more than one important tackle.
"People think I'm trying to pull the wool over their eyes when I say this, but I really do have a lot to learn," insisted Robinson, by way of explanation for a distinctly dodgy first 40 minutes as an active member of the 2001 pride. "Sometimes, I have to pinch myself, just to confirm to myself that this is happening to me. I know a lot more about union than I once did, but there is so much to pick up on in this game especially over here, in the back yard of the world champions. The crucial thing is to stay patient, to recognise that there are going to be ups and downs. I know I'll be tested to the limit by the Australian teams. In terms of going up a level, this is as big a step as I could ask myself to make."
To his enormous credit, Robinson did stay patient against the President's Men and was handsomely rewarded. His opening try seven minutes into the second half was a pearl: quick turn-over ball courtesy of the impressive Martyn Williams and a precise counter-attacking angle from Perry gave the wing a few feet of space, from which he extracted full value. His second, 14 minutes later, was a straight-line run-in with the turbo at full blast; his third, seven minutes into the final quarter, was the result of Austin Healey's perfect cut-out pass and Dafydd James' forceful carry. If tries four and five were straightforward, it was because the frazzled defence had long given up on cutting down Robinson in full flow.
Balancing 40 minutes of acute discomfort with 40 minutes of attacking brio, Robinson left Townsville ahead of the game. So far, so good. He is in the frame for a second midweek start this Tuesday, against a particularly useful Australia A side in Gosford and that will be a very different kettle of Pacific barramundi. If Mr W Whizz Esq can thrive in that one, rather than merely survive, a place in the Test 22 will surely be his for the taking. And given his profound belief in the beneficence of the good Lord, who is to say he will not come off the bench in Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney and disappear into the southern hemisphere night for a crucial five-pointer? Stranger things have happened.
Try, try, try again
1. 47th minute. The Lions stream upfield and with the defence stretched the ball is spun through the backs. Robinson, on an overlap, goes over in the left corner.
2. 61st min. Queensland set up a maul on the 10-metre line but the ball is turned over. Matt Dawson launches a sniping run down the left before finding Robinson inside, sending him over from 30 metres.
3. 67th min. From a scrum, Austin Healey brilliantly releases Rob Henderson. He finds Dafydd James at speed and the Welsh wing times his pass impeccably to Robinson who easily rounds Scott Barton.
4. 76th min. The Lions steal the ball in contact. Healey sends Colin Charvis clear on the inside. Charvis is tackled well and the ball comes back in front of the posts and Robinson jinks past the only defender.
5. 80th min. The Lions win a line-out on the 22 and spread the ball left, eventually to Robinson. Even though he only has the tiniest of openings, he shimmies outside David McCallum and over the line.
By Paul TrowReuse content