DAN Robson acknowledges that Wasps have got issues, but the festive period provided some uplift for their co-captain and his side when they came off the ropes to score two of the tries of the season.
The first, which secured a gold-dust last minute away win over Bristol, owed everything to a brilliant, never-say-die touchline run by Nizaam Carr, their South African backrow import.
Then last weekend, back at the Ricoh, after being bested by Northampton for the first hour Wasps struck back with a move of such flair, culminating in a try for Matteo Minozzi, that it had the 12,000 plus crowd on its feet.
It started with a darting kick-return out of the Wasps 22 by Minozzi, and when the Italian international full-back was brought down, scrum-half Robson whipped the ball away with minimum fuss and maximum speed.
A couple of pairs of hands later there was just enough space for winger Zach Kibirige to spear down the touchline. The final flourish, which saw Robson move Kibirige’s inside pass on to Thomas Young with a back-hander of such slickness that neither player broke stride, was poetry in motion. So was was the finish, with Minozzi racing up on Young’s shoulder to run-in the try scoring pass.
It gave Wasps the impetus to take go on and take the lead – and secure a four-try bonus point for the second league match in succession – but, as has too often been the case this season, they stumbled at the last hurdle when Northampton clinched a last-gasp 35-31 win with a Taqele Naiyaravoro try.
It was nothing new to Robson, 27, because over the last year he has earned a masters degree in fine margins.
Having belatedly won his first two England caps off the bench against France and Italy in last year’s Six Nations, Robson was halted in his tracks by a calf swelling – which turned out to be a life-threatening Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) that had spread from his lower leg to his lungs.
It ruled him out for the Scotland match, and, despite recuperating in three months rather than the usual six month period after running the gauntlet of operations, scans and blood-thinners, Robson was unable to convince Eddie Jones to include him in the World Cup squad to Japan.
The Wasps scrum-half says that he had a check-call from the Jones soon after the World Cup, but has not heard from him since.
However, despite the imminent announcement of the England Six Nations squad, Robson says he is not losing any sleep trying to second guess the England coach’s intentions at No.9 – and has plenty to keep himself busy.
“It’s alright because I’m enjoying getting my head down for the Wasps fight. I haven’t thought about it too much, and I’m sinking my teeth into what I’m doing day in, day out. If he picks me, it’s perfect, if not I’ll keep on working to get back into England contention.”
Robson also believes that making the transition from Wasps to international duty despite his absence for almost a year is well within his scope.
This is apparent when I ask him how different the England playbook is to that at Wasps – such as whether it is bigger and more complex?
Robson answers: “It’s pretty simple with England, and it’s definitely not a bigger playbook than the one at Wasps. There are a few plays, and the emphasis is on running them really well.”
He adds: “It doesn’t take too long to find your feet when you rejoin England – it doesn’t take weeks. England play a different way, but it is not a New England Patriots playbook, and you get back up to speed pretty quickly.”
He says that the DVT illness, and his recovery, has given him a clearer perspective on his rugby career, including the importance of living for the moment.
“It has definitely broadened my horizons and given me a bigger picture in rugby, and in life. It’s about enjoying the moment and playing every game as if it could be your last, because it is a tough sport.
“We’ve had a few career-ending injuries here this season with Alex Rieder and Marcus Garratt, and Sam Jones before that. A little scare can sort of reset you so that you concentrate on putting your all into everything, and enjoying it, because you never know when it can end.”
Robson says it has helped him with captaincy, and has convinced him of the importance of a positive collective mindset – especially with crucial away games against Worcester and Leicester the next phase of the Wasps drive to pull clear of the relegation zone.
“In recent weeks we’ve shown the rugby we want to play as a young new group, in which there are plenty of new faces. We’ve lacked a bit of accuracy, but have shown glimpses of what we can achieve. From 1 to 40, everyone wants to work massively hard – anyone who sees us work for each other would never question our work ethic, and it’s starting to show on the pitch.”
Robson continues: “Rugby is so much about confidence and belief, and we didn’t panic against Bristol, and then a moment of magic did it. It is something we have been lacking, but Nizaam produced when we needed it.
“We want to play rugby, to spin it wide and get it in the backs’ hands. Those bonus points from the four tries in the win over Bristol, and scoring another four in the loss to Northampton has definitely given us confidence.”
Robson says that calm heads and clear focus is required to pull Wasps out of the doldrums.
“There are times in games when you can definitely influence it as a captain, particularly in calming it down. I’m loving it, and I felt I grew into it last year. It’s an enjoyable new challenge, and there is support because there are other experienced guys like Jimmy Gopperth, Malakai Fekitoa, Joe Launchbury, Brad Shields, and also Jack Willis starting to emerge.
“The message is be patient, and don’t panic. There are still a lot of games to come, and if we get a bit of a run together we can start to push. We have to be positive. That’s where we want everyone to be, even when we have bad days.”
He says that an additional plus is that there are players who are rising to the challenge and setting the bar high in terms of standards, and he makes special mention of young openside Willis and former All Black centre Fekitoa.
“Jack had a great start to the season, and he just gives us a lot of ball in play thanks to the turnovers he wins. Having him and Thomas Young in the same back row is a luxury, but we cannot afford to take them for granted.
“There was a lot said about Malakai when he signed, and the big shoes he had to fill. But he has high standards and great drive, and in the last few weeks he has been immense for us, especially in defence, where he has shown such solidity.”
Robson’s upbeat tone is welcome because good news at Wasps has been in short supply over the last two seasons. The high turn-over of players and the club’s financial position, despite the CVC cash boost helping the club to post a £4.6m annual profit in November, have raised questions over sustainability.
Ask Robson whether the squad revolving door – including whether the departures of Wasps-bred veterans like Danny Cipriani and James Haskell in 2018, and star-turn Elliot Daly to Saracens last summer – was unavoidable, and he says times have changed.
“There are not too many people who are staying at clubs for whole careers anymore – for instance, I came here from Gloucester – but we are lucky to have one in Joe (Launchbury). People talk about people leaving clubs all the time, but you don’t listen to the rumours, you just focus on your job.
“Most people would like to find a place and stay, and I love it here and would like to do that. But it is not always in your control in pro sport, and you have to be adaptable.”
Adaptability is also the name of the game at scrum-half. So, does Robson detect a trend where they are being asked to are becoming more like play-book quarter-backs than linchpins who play what is in front of them?
“There is definitely more structure in the game now, especially with all the analysis that goes on, but it is still important as a 9 to have instinctive play. I can’t afford to be a robot here because we want to play attacking rugby, and my job is to get the flow moving.”
When it comes to his thoughts on the caterpillar ruck and the curse of continuous box-kicking, Robson puts the boot in. “The caterpillar ruck has become a bit silly, and it takes a good bit of skill out of the game. Good box-kicking takes skill – and it’s a difficult skill as I showed at the weekend when one of mine was charged down.
“We usually put only one or two men into the ruck, but a lot of teams use four or five, and it slows the game down because it’s never clear in five seconds. As a 9 you don’t complain too much, because it gives you more time and more safety, but you very rarely see it penalised when the ball is not used within five seconds!”
Robson is part of a Wasps team currently 9th in the table, and has a defence which leaks like a cracked sieve.
He is also playing behind a pack which is a work in progress rather than dominant, and yet his speed of pass and thought still sparks an attack with a verve that few Premiership sides can match.
The old rugby adage that the measure of a scrum-half is how good they are behind a struggling pack still rings true. It is one Eddie Jones should bear in mind when he comes to Dan Robson’s name during his Six Nations deliberations.