Preamble: Fact – Wasps have won every game when Nicky Robinson has started, they have lost every game when he has not. Is this just coincidence, surely not? As Wasps welcome Northampton to Adams Park this Sunday, there is eager anticipation as Robinson seeks to enhance his growing reputation in the Black and Gold. Comparisons spring to mind with the legendary Alex King, but can Robinson ever become that good? Andrew Watson compares and contrasts, considers the role of the number 10, and looks back at the great fly halves who have played for Wasps over the years.
“Can Robinson become the new King ?”
The no 10. It is a magical number. It is iconic and has a certain mystique. Everyone secretly wishes they wore the no 10. But it is reserved for only the lucky few.
In football he can be the magician, the flair player, the creator yet this number also has historical connotations with the flawed genius, the maverick, the extrovert and the bad boy. Frank Worthington, Alan Hudson, Stan Bowles, Tony Currie and more latterly Wayne Rooney have paraded their talents with the number 10 on their back in the domestic game, whilst Maradona, Pele, Zidane and Messi, to name but a few, on the world stage. They have all both delighted and exasperated in equal measure.
In rugby union, the number 10 bears many similarities to it’s round ball neighbour. The fly half, or outside half as the position is more traditionally known, is the man who has the ability to control the match, it is he who sets the pace, pulls the strings and controls the tempo. One might liken him to the conductor of an orchestra. As with the footballing no 10, he has a certain je ne sais quoi, he can electrify a game, turn it on its head, he can excite and frustrate yet can also be the ultimate pragmatist. He can play the waiting game, so he is ready to pounce at just the right moment, often to win a match for his team in the most pressurised environments.
Wasps have a fine tradition in boasting some of the most talented no 10s to have played the game. Richard Sharp blazed the trail, captaining England in the early 60s. He was a graceful runner with a deceptive turn of pace. One memorable try he scored in a Calcutta Match when in his pomp is frequently replayed from the old archives and is a testament to his natural flair and ability.
He was followed in the 60’s by Freddie Hawkins, another gifted attacking fly half who lit the touch paper for an all international three quarter line outside him. He was a former pupil of RGS Wycombe, and became a Barbarian yet missed out on a full cap. This was regrettable in many ways, especially as he and his old sparring partner Clive Ashby at scrum half were recognised by the 1962/3 All Blacks as the best pair of halfbacks in the country. Indeed so highly regarded were they, that the pair of them were inducted into the Wasps Hall of Fame at the annual gala dinner recently. Freddie’s name remains prominent locally as his two sports shops, Hawkinsport, in Bourne End and Amersham bear testament.
In the Sudbury days of the 80s and 90s, Wasps had an influx from the light blue of Cambridge, and 2 players glittered the international stage whilst at that same time wearing the no 10 in black and gold whilst earning a crust as surveyors in the city.
Firstly, the dimunitive Huw Davies, who cut a dashing figure, all class and dazzle with a keen sense of spirit and adventure, a trade learned on the university playing fields and harnessed on the international stage.
He was followed by Rob Andrew. Whatever anyone says about his departure to Newcastle, at the beginning of the professional era in 1995, he gave his all for Wasps and kickstarted a new breed of fly half, the fearless tackling competitor who shirked nothing. Andrew kicked his goals too and understood what it took to win, his drop goal for England in Cape Town to defeat Australia in the World Cup Quarter Final in 1995 was the ‘stuff of legends’ and was always known as “the kick”, until Jonny came along!
Wasps have always given youth a chance and at no 10 it can be a chastening experience, often likened to being thrown from the frying pan into the fire. At the tender age of 17, whilst a schoolboy at Harrow, the Canadian Gareth Rees was handed the no 10 jersey to play in the old John Player Cup Final against Bath in 1986. He went on to achieve great things, including 55 caps for Canada and his points tally of 487 for his country remains a record to this day.
Similarly, the precocious talent that is Danny Cipriani, was given his head at Wasps as a fresh faced young tyro. He proved to be an instant success, oozing confidence and class with pace to burn and exceptional ability. Alas he remains a talent unfulfilled and his soujourn to Australia seems to have raised more questions than answers. Maybe his day is still to come. For Wasps though, he was simply sensational at times.
Yet for all these glitterati, the ultimate no 10 for any Wasp has to be Alex King or ‘Kingy’. He played for Wasps for 11 seasons, made over 260 appearances, scored over 1500 points and was a key member of the team during vintage era at the club in the mid to late 2000s. He was often seen as the steady hand on the tiller, the right cog in the machine, dependable and loyal, guiding the team in the right direction, making sure the game was played in the right areas of the pitch, with an unfussy and uncomplicated approach to the game. He wasn’t the quickest, he couldn’t kick the ball the furthest and wasn’t the strongest of tacklers but he knew how to win a match. When it really counted, on the biggest stage, against Wasps’ biggest rivals he stood tall and he exuded class. He had the precious commodity of time, he raised his game to the highest levels and was arguably Wasps most important player. Never has the phrase “cometh the hour” been so apt as when Alex King strode out out for his beloved Wasps into the heat of battle. He was invaluable and rightly commands his legendary status.
And now Wasps have a new man at the helm directing operations from no 10. Welshman Nicky Robinson was discarded by Gloucester at the end of last season, to much dismay from the general rugby fraternity, but what is Gloucester’s loss is quickly becoming Wasps’ gain. In the first two matches and prior to his injury, Robinson had picked up the mantle seamlessly from the ultimately underperforming Dave Walder and has set about his new role with calm authority and relish. His return from injury has also coincided with a return to winning ways for the team. His kicking game is well thought, he seems to have an ability to read the game, also having an eye for the gap. Many Wasps supporters can be seen giving each other encouraging looks, and the portents at this early stage look good.
Like King, he has a cultured left foot and a clear understanding of what his position demands and what his teammates require of him. He puts the ball in the right position and can kick his goals. The similarities with King continue, as he is of comparable height (King 1.83m, Robinson 1.85m) and weight (King 91 kg, Robinson 93 kg). Furthermore, like King, his international career never really took off. His 12 Welsh caps (99 points) compare favourably to the 5 English caps (23 points) that King collected, but both will ultimately be disappointed that they were not able to make more of an impression on the international stage. However, at 29, Robinson stills has the time to resurrect his Welsh career but at the moment it certainly feels as though his time has passed as a new breed of Welsh fly half is given it’s chance.
So, where does this leave us? It is early days, yet Robinson has started well, he has a huge wealth of experience which he is bringing to bear on his new colleagues and he has the potential to become a big player for Wasps. He appears to be an astute signing and there is much to look forward to.
If he can inspire Wasps to some much needed success, he will be held in high regard, but will his name ever be mentioned in the same breath as that of Alex King? Only time will tell. The King has departed. Long live the King.
4 November 2011