The Saturday Interview: From Eden to the Gardens all looks rosy for Robinson

Saints' former All Black scrum-half brings a passion to the game which thrives on the Premiership's demands
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It will be a red-blooded occasion - fraught, fractious, feverish. Just the kind of game, in fact, that might have been designed to bemuse and befuddle the superior southern hemisphere types drawn to these shores by big crowds and even bigger pay packets. Robinson's contribution to Northampton since arriving from the outlying suburbs of Auckland two and a half seasons ago has been little short of epic - "Our performance as a side is affected to a significant degree by whether Mark is in or out of form," conceded Paul Grayson, the coach - and he has now come fully to terms with the passions unleashed by a must-win Premiership match. This is not to suggest, however, that he will play this game in anything other than a cold sweat.

"When I first arrived here from New Zealand, I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing," said the former All Black this week. "Compared with rugby back home, the crowd noise was something else. I'd turned out at Eden Park in Auckland in front of a full house of 45,000, yet Franklin's Gardens was every bit as loud, if not louder, with 12,000 inside. This is a fantastic place to play the game - wonderful stadium, beautiful surface, brilliant support - and when you let people down on the field, as we did before Christmas, you feel it all the more because everything else is so right. I guess that's why I still get such a buzz from being here."

The buzz will be buzzier than ever this afternoon, for Robinson, who made eight All Black appearances and won three Test caps between 1997 and 2001, is scheduled to renew his long-standing acquaintance with Justin Marshall, who spent rather more time in the silver-ferned shirt - 88 All Black appearances and 81 Tests between 1995 and 2005, to be precise. After an awkward start in what might euphemistically be described as a challenging environment, Marshall is beginning to run hot for Leeds, a notion unpinned by his masterly performance in the Heineken Cup tie against the Cardiff Blues last weekend. If both men are in the mood today, the game within a game will be something for the connoisseur.

"When I turned pro in '96, Justin was already an All Black," recalled Robinson, the younger man by a little over two years. "Yes, I've played against him, plenty of times. He's a fabulous competitor." And the Leeds thing? Why Leeds, when a big-time club with Northampton-style support - a Bath or a Gloucester or a Leicester - might have splashed the cash in his direction?

"It's hard to say what suits a particular individual at a particular time in his life," Robinson replied, "but in my book, he's the perfect bloke for Leeds. He's taken a whole load of knowledge up there with him and he's making a difference. They made Cardiff look very average last week, and Cardiff have a lot of good players."

Like Marshall, the one-province half-back from North Harbour believes the Premiership generates a far greater intensity of feeling than the Super 12. "The nearest thing I've experienced in terms of partisan interest is the National Provincial Championship back home," he said. "We have what we call the 'battle of the bridge', the name commonly used for a game between North Harbour and Auckland. That is the Northampton-Leicester equivalent, a grudge match you dare not lose. I played in a few, and loved them. In the Premiership, though, there are more of those games. In fact, every game seems to produce a pretty fierce atmosphere."

More negatively from the perspective of the Premiership élite, Robinson joins Marshall in singing from a second hymn sheet - the one concerning player burn-out and fixture overload. Back in September, the Leeds player professed astonishment at the length of the English rugby calendar, stating that "you wouldn't find an All Black anywhere near a field after a four-week off-season". Robinson agrees.

"I think the Premiership is a special competition, but the amount of games on the schedule must come under the spotlight," he said. "Burn-out exists, for sure, and the programme here is such a hard one, especially for people involved at international level. There are only 52 weeks in a year, and very few of them are rugby-free. I understand the economic necessities of the game and I appreciate that all these tournaments are money-driven, but there will have to be some restructuring somewhere.

"Quite honestly, I find it hard to even imagine getting through a season in one piece, and I'm not playing Test rugby any more. You don't so much struggle in the body as in the head. The body can absorb a hell of a lot of punishment if you ask it, but the brain is a different matter entirely. Week after week of high-pressure rugby leaves you exhausted, and that's when the injuries start to occur. I don't think there is a single player in the Premiership who would expect to go through a season without getting injured or playing injured."

Northampton have suffered more than anyone on the absentee front in recent months - indeed, they would be rugby's mirror image of Newcastle United were in not for the fact that Grayson does not whine nearly as often, or nearly so piercingly, as Graeme Souness. Robinson himself has missed some important matches, and the Saints have missed him in turn.

But the back division named for today's game - Bruce Reihana at full-back, Sean Lamont and Ben Cohen on the wings, David Quinlan and the young talk-of-the-town centre Jon Clarke in midfield, Carlos Spencer and Robinson at the fulcrum - is awash with class. It is this kind of combination that reinforces the scrum-half's sense of a bright future ready to unfold at the Gardens.

There are those who would say any future would be bright compared with the black-as-pitch darknesses of the recent past. Northampton were in such turmoil 14 months ago that they sacked their South African coach, Alan Solomons, and promoted two of their own, Grayson and Budge Pountney, into positions for which the wider rugby community considered them spectacularly under-qualified. If Robinson has few fond memories of the mercifully brief Solomons regime - "I wouldn't want to go into that in too much depth," he said - he believes the new hierarchy has injected energy, enthusiasm and a sense of direction wholly lacking in the early stages of the 2004-05 campaign.

"When you play for this club in front of this support, you can't help but do it with pride," he said. "But you also need a map, a goal, an idea of where you're going. That's what we've been working on, and the senior players have had a voice in it, which is important. This is a big club, a top-tier club, and it's up to us to deliver performances that reflect our status. We have everything we need except consistency, but I believe we've started to address that area.

"January has been a good month for us, both in the Premiership and in the European Challenge Cup, so this game against Leeds is massive, not because it's a relegation battle or anything like it, but because victory would see us meet our target and complete the short-term task we set ourselves.

"We should be in a position where we have no need to chase leading players. Those players should naturally want to come to us, just as they want to go to Leicester or Wasps. We should be in a position where we should expect not only to compete in the Heineken Cup every season, but go into the tournament as favourites to win our pool. I think these things are attainable.

"I'm here for another two seasons, and at the end of that period I expect us to be in a far stronger position than the one our current Premiership position suggests we are in right now."