Rugby League Heroes: Jason Robinson

JASON ROBINSON is one of the great Rugby League wingers, creating havoc for opposing defences between 1992 and 2000, at which point he crossed codes, leaving Wigan for Sale. He won numerous trophies in the Cherry and White and his great individual performances include winning the Lance Todd Trophy in 1995, scoring the crucial try in the inaugural Grand Final in 1998 and being the stand-out player in the final game at Central Park in 1999. In a disappointing era for Great Britain, he was a regular try scorer against Australia and New Zealand.

RR: What are your earliest memories of rugby and when did you think you might pursue it as a career?
JR: My earliest memories are from school, when I didn’t know anything about the game. I suddenly grew a love for it and, even though I was tiny, I loved the physicality. I joined an amateur club and remember Garry Schofield doing a presentation, which was very exciting. At 16, I knew I had some talent and wanted to play for Leeds.

RR: Why didn’t they come for you?
JR: They chose someone else. Wigan had a scout in Leeds and thankfully he saw some potential. I was disappointed because I was a ball boy at Leeds. Even throwing a ball back to your heroes was exciting! I had an offer from Hunslet, but that wasn’t what I wanted. But Leeds ignoring me was a blessing, because they didn’t win anything back then.

RR: How would your career have panned out had you remained a halfback?
JR: Wigan had guys like Shaun Edwards and Frano Botica, so I was always going to be up against it. They saw that my ability to beat defenders was better than my ball skills, so I moved to the wing. I wasn’t bothered. The other winger was Martin Offiah, so I had a lot to live up to! I came in after an injury to David Myers and never looked back and stayed there until 2000. It was such a competitive environment and if you didn’t perform, someone would take your place. Winning is one thing, but backing it up is another, and that’s what we had to do at Wigan.

RR: Your international debut in 1993 couldn’t have gone much better!
JR: It was unbelievable to play for Great Britain at Wembley and to score two tries. Everyone wants to play international rugby. I was up against Sean Hoppe and I was named man of the match. It gave me a taste of international rugby and I wanted more, but I dislocated my elbow at Halifax and missed the last two Tests.

RR: You were angry to be dropped from the 1994 Challenge Cup Final. Now you’ve coached, can you sympathise with the decision?
JR: Well I do understand that you can’t pick everybody – 30 into 17 doesn’t go. But the issue was how it came about. I was told I was in contention if I played an A-team game. I did and scored three tries. Then I had to play another and was man of the match. I just wanted to be told if I was going to be dropped. How much more did they want me to do? John Dorahy’s problem was that he couldn’t tell you. John Monie would just tell you. A few of us got bitter and twisted about it and didn’t handle it in the right way, abusing a few people. I was a young, immature lad at the time. It’s all part of growing up.

RR: Winning the World Club Challenge in Brisbane a few weeks later must have made up for it!
JR: Yes, the coach was sacked, and I was reinstated. We were on their turf and we didn’t have our strongest team. Billy McGinty was propping. Graeme West had taken over and he said we had a few days to enjoy ourselves and boy, did we enjoy ourselves! We had one hell of a party for a few days. Then reality kicked in and we knew we had to play well or be embarrassed and we created one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport. It was an amazing night. It’s up there with my biggest ever wins in rugby.

RR: You signed with the ARL at the height of the Super League war. Did you have a club lined up?
JR: There was nothing set in stone, but I thought about playing for Manly. Living on the beach would have been nice. The decision was down to finances. A lot of money had come into the game and when I was offered a million-pound contract, it was a case of “give me a pen!” It was a strange time. It happened overnight, and people were panicking. Every man and his dog were signing for someone. But after time I wanted to stay in the UK and Wigan came to an agreement with the ARL.

RR: You became religious in 1995 and have said it was a turning point in your life. But you didn’t appear to be struggling on the field before that.
JR: Everyone judges you on what happens on the field. If you’re successful, then the perception is that life must be great. But some people do well at work and then go away and struggle. That’s why the awareness of mental health now is great. People didn’t understand that I came from a really tough background. We were a very poor, one-parent family. Suddenly, I was shoved into an environment where everyone is obsessed with rugby and patting you on the back and I didn’t have the character to deal with it. People see you in new cars but don’t have a clue what is really going on in your life. It would have been good to be helped with that. The game teaches you to be hard and not show vulnerability, but sometimes you need to. You’re not Superman. You have emotions. When you had a problem, you went for a beer, as if getting drunk would sort everything. I’d play in front of a huge crowd, then go home and feel lonely. Inga [Va’aiga Tuigamala] coming to Wigan was massive for me, because I had someone to look up to. I realised it wasn’t about having the best car or the most girls or the most money. He was the happiest man in the club. I knew I wanted that too. Faith was a big part of his life. I had a GBH charge over me at the time. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was really struggling – sometimes going out six nights a week. I looked after myself physically from 1995, so it was a key thing for my career. Mentally it helped too, because you can be fit, but if your mind isn’t right you will struggle.

RR: What do you remember of the infamous Challenge Cup defeat at Salford 1996?
JR: My memory of Salford was always complaining about the changing room! It was always freezing. You come to realise over the years that sport is exciting for lots of different reasons and you can always get beaten if you’re not at your best. It was hard to swallow because of our success, but days like that are good for the game. When Wigan didn’t win, everyone else was happy. The bad memories I have are the best memories for others. I don’t remember much about the game, but I’m sure Salford people will look back and recall!

RR: How do you remember the cross-code games with Bath in 1996?
JR: It was great for the players. It felt like League v union, working class v middle class. It gave us an understanding of how different the games were. They looked like fish out of water in League and we didn’t have a clue in Union and only our natural skills made us competitive in that game. We tried to play union in the first half then at half-time, we decided to throw the ball around.

RR: You scored the most famous of Grand Final tries in 1998. I once read that it was the only tackle Leeds missed in the entire match.
JR: Playing in the first Grand Final was huge. There were only 43,000 there and it was peeing it down. There was nothing in the game. I was always up for beating Leeds, because they hadn’t signed me. Richie Blackmore scored for Leeds. There was nothing on. Radders took it onto the 20, right on touch. I did what I was always did – probed the line. Someone always wanted to smash you, but I could use my footwork to get between what was a very good defensive line. I skipped through, went round the fullback and scored under the posts. It was a great moment!

RR: Did you lose focus or feel a bit stale in your last couple of seasons as a Rugby League player?
JR: No. I certainly wasn’t stale, but it got to a point when I thought, “I’ve won this several times, so what next?” If Wigan had offered me a contract earlier, I would have stayed. As a key player, you don’t expect not to have your contract sorted out in your last season.

RR: What are you up to now?
JR: I’ve got lots of different roles. I work with sports companies. I’m a director at X-Blades, who sponsor Castleford and Hull KR. I’m also a director of Cocofusion Drink and Proskins.