When Dan Robson caught Joe Cokanasiga’s pass to score in England’s Six Nations rout of Italy in 2019, the world was at the scrum-half’s feet.
The Wasps star had suffered the torment of touring South Africa in 2018 without making any of the three Test squads. This turned to torture, enduring the ignominy of being the only player of 46 selected not to take to the field during England’s 32-20 beating of Ireland in Dublin the following spring.
The joy of his belated Test debut against France was swiftly tempered by more frustration, as he watched on as Eddie Jones’ side surrendered their Grand Slame hopes to Wales in Cardiff.
Nine minutes after arriving from the bench and with England 27 points up against the beleaguered Italians, Robson’s trademark supporting line yielded his first international points. It was perfectly timed, as was his ascent into Jones’ thinking in a world cup year.
One year, seven months and 15 days later, Robson returns to that same stadium today with Wasps in the Premiership final with no further additions to his two caps earned in early 2019.
Deep vein thrombosis cruelly struck the Stoke-on-Trent native down when he was Ben Youngs’ main rival for the nine shirt. Rather than preparing for a first Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland, he spent his 27th birthday in an operating theatre when survival, rather than a return to rugby, was prominent in his mind.
He wouldn’t play again for a further six months, despite a brave late attempt to force his way back into the England reckoning for the tournament in Japan that fell just short.
Robson’s early 2019/20 season form reflected Wasps as a whole, flashes of brilliance but overall, falling short of expectations. The day before England kicked off their pursuit of global glory with a 35-3 win over Tonga, Robson captained Wasps to a 50-28 Premiership Cup home defeat to Saracens at the Ricoh Arena.
“The start of the season was pretty tough, to find some form individually and as a group,” he said. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, I felt like I wanted to get back to the stage that I was before the illness. I felt like I just needed to play some games and get back in it and obviously it was a lot tougher than that.”
Wasps’ struggles in that opener rolled over into the kick-off of the 2019/20 Premiership season. They would win just one of their opening five league games and just two of their first 10 front-line games, factoring in their ill-fated European Challenge Cup commitments that ended at the pool stage.
It was form that led to a period of introspection from Robson as he aspired to reclaim the verve and inspiration that saw him shine for club and country.
“I did struggle to find my form at the start and that was just something I had to get used to and just try and evolve my game a little bit and really look at games before I was injured and seeing what I was differently and how I could get back to that,” he said.
While medically discharged from his DVT issue, aside from wearing compression stockings on flights, the legacy of it remained prominent in Robson’s mind.
“A lot of it was just pressure on myself,” he said. “Perhaps a little bit through nerves cause I was in the unknown a little bit. I didn’t know how the injury came about in the first place so is it going to come back again.
“I think I put a lot of pressure on myself in that way. I spoke to a few people and try and turn that and flip it on its head and was kind of like ‘if we don’t know the source and we don’t know what’s going on then why are you even worrying about it, you’ve got to go out there and play every game like it could be your last because you’re in a pretty fortunate position’.”
This rationale helped sober Robson’s mind to the realities of the achievements of his recovery, and the haunting prospect of what might’ve been.
“A lot of people go through what I went through and don’t get to play any level of sport again and the fact that I’m playing top level is pretty awesome,” he said. “I just flipped that into a positive mindset and just really tried to start embracing it and enjoying my rugby again cause we’re pretty fortunate in the fact I get to run out – or I used to – thousands of people and play rugby on a weekend.
“I think that was the big thing for me was that mindset, the change and just enjoying it and you know at the minute how could you not enjoy playing for this team.”
In the 595 days that have passed since his last run out at ‘HQ’, Robson has made 27 appearances for Wasps and would likely have been an ever-present in the Premiership season if it wasn’t for the congested period of fixtures after the restart in August. The only league games he has missed were against Worcester Warriors and Saracens, when the squad was heavily rotated.
His durability has been allied by an inspirational streak of form. Robson is back scoring (three tries in four games) and creating opportunities for others. Bristol had no answer to his divine chip for Malakai Fekitoa’s opening score in the semi-final nor his quickly-taken penalty to cross the line at a key moment in the second half.
There’s a spring in his step, a smile on his face but a steely focus in his eyes as he spoke to the media from his Leamington Spa home just a day after learning Wasps could take their rightful place in the final, that was under serious threat following a Covid-19 outbreak within the camp.
“It’s obviously a bit of a challenging time for me personally and the way we are at the minute, it’s challenging times for everyone,” said Robson. “It’s just another hurdle we’ve got to get over and the experience that I went through last season has definitely put me in good stead going into what’s pretty uncertain times.
“Especially the last week or so that we’ve been involved with, it’s been pretty tough for everyone. I think it’s definitely helped me probably in ways I haven’t realised as much yet.”
The full impact of the outbreak was learned with yesterday’s selection announcement as Brad Shields, Kieran Brookes, Simon McIntyre and Alfie Barbeary were ruled out due to Covid-19 contact tracing protocols.
Robson, one of six survivors in the squad today from Wasps’ last final appearance three years ago, believes his side have enough talent in reserve to bring home the club’s first honour in more than a decade.
“I’m massively confident,” he said. “I think you know we’ve shown over this period of ten games since the return that our squad depth is pretty awesome.
“I think everyone in the squad that’s put on the Wasps jersey has got us to this stage, it’s not just been a 23, 24, 25-man job it has been, I think we’ve used 40, 42 players maybe something like that, so it has been a massive squad effort and I know anyone that will step into the jersey on Saturday will give absolutely their all and we’re confident in everyone we’ve got.”
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