Jason Robinson sits in the front row of seats at an empty Twickenham Stoop with a phone stapled to his ear.
“I’m just proud to be taking part”. “It’s nice to give back”. “England can win the World Cup, but it’s going to be tough”. He offers up empty platitudes on cue to a journalist looking for lines.
Around him there are doctors eyeing up access points for ambulances and cameramen trying to find the best angle of the pitch in front of him, on which a ramshackle mix of reality TV celebrities, pop stars and old boys from rugby’s glory days kick around a few balls, looking vaguely disinterested.
Article continues below
A game is happening soon, but not the type that Robinson, a dual-code World Cup winner, is used to. It’s RugbyAid, a match in which celebrities and former pros from England and the Rest of the World compete to raise money for army veterans. Talk amongst those on the sidelines, the coaches and clingers-on, turns to the booze knocked back the night before.
The conversation progresses and he gets tetchy. “Listen…sorry…I’ve got to go, training is about to start”. He hangs up and jogs onto the pitch, free of his obligations.
Article continues below
“I tried to pull him away from the pitch yesterday to do some interviews, but he was having none of it,” says Claire, taking care of PR for the event as Robinson scampers around the turf in front. “He’s always like that.”
A rugby player may stop playing, but he never truly retires. Some, though, struggle with the burden of history, the weight of their achievements. Some actions echo through eternity, but also act as a constant reminder of the greatness that they once had within their grasp.
"I feel like I’m breaking apart in that I am going towards somewhere where my answer will be massively in the spiritual and philosophical, but it’s not there yet," Jonny Wilkinson, the man who kicked England to World Cup glory in 2003, admitted earlier this month. The former fly half mastered his craft on the field. In doing so, he left little time to master anything else, including living.
Robinson exudes comfort and joy when discussing his glorious past, but perhaps that's because he's already hit the bottom and come back. He once contemplated calling time on life, when it all got too much to bear. “I can remember just sat in my bedroom with an old knife, an old meat cleaver. I didn’t want life to go on in this way."
The 41-year-old was shaped and moulded by his tough upbringing on the Leeds estate of Harehills. One resident previously described the area as being in "a state of near anarchy and squalor".
Raised by his Scottish mother, who suffered brutal violence at the hands of his step-father, Robinson never knew his Jamaican father growing up. The closest he got was when was pointed out to him by chance at a shopping centre.
"There was bloodshed and screaming rows, an air of menace pervaded the house," he wrote in his autobiography. "Plates and glasses flew in anger. On one occasion, the television was hurled through a window into the street. The worst, though, was anything involving my mum. Seeing her being beaten broke my heart. No one deserved the hard time she had."
Robinson's path was laid before him before he could walk. Heavy drinking sessions and an arrest for affray, assault and criminal damage led him to a dark place. He said in an interview with ITV earlier this year: "That night when I contemplated doing it [suicide], I wept like a baby. Probably of all the times in my life that I needed my father it was then.”
His salvation came when he found God in the mid-90's through Wigan team-mate Va'aiga Tuigamala. "Had it not been for him, coming into the environment I was in and putting a different slant on it," Robinson continued. "I certainly wouldn't have the hope that I've got now. And hope is something that people can't take away."
Robinson's new path directed him towards rugby union and the single most glorious moment of his professional life.
12 years on, and the images of English heroism on foreign soil still don't quite do the moment justice. "You can’t always tell when you watch it on TV, but it was raining heavily and there was a bit of a swirling wind. So for somebody like me fielding balls, it was always a bit more difficult. The surface was a lot more greasy, so there was not as much traction when you're trying to break the line."
Robinson sits with a computer in his hands, rewinding and fast-forwarding a video of himself scoring England's only try in their historic 2003 World Cup final success against Australia in Sydney. He watches himself skid across the turf and punch the ball into the night air, adrenaline seeping from every pore. He smiles at the memory.
‘’We weren't thinking, ‘we’re making history.’ It’s about doing your job, not letting your mates down. Just knowing you did it with special people and good mates made it special. You see pictures of me hugging Lawrence and Jonny, and all the guys, because we'd given so much to be crowned as World Cup winners."
Every four years, Robinson's try, Wilkinson's drop goal and England's only World Cup win work their way back to the top of the agenda. This year England will try to repeat the feats of the Class of '03 on home soil. Head coach Stuart Lancaster's mission is not an easy one; his goal is to dethrone reigning champions New Zealand, a team they haven't beaten since 2012. They start against Fiji on Friday before taking on Australia, Wales and Uruguay in what has been labelled the 'Group of Death'.
"I think with the World Cup being held here, and the media exposure that goes with it, it will dwarf our achievements in 2003,’’ says Robinson.
Perhaps. But until England pull off the improbable again, and even afterwards, a nation will always clutch that night in November 12 years ago close to their hearts.
There's a handful of key moments, Robinson points out, that made his crucial try in the 20-17 win possible. Chiefly, Lawrence Dallaglio's bursting run. England were favourites to win going into the game but had struggled for momentum. Lote Tuqiri had out-jumped Robinson to give Australia the first points of the match from Stephen Larkham's cross-field kick. The conversion was missed. Although Wilkinson's two penalties had given England a slender 6-5 lead, Sir Clive Woodward's side had been lured into trench warfare.
Prior to his try, Robinson had tried to latch onto his own kick over the top, only to be blocked by Stirling Mortlock as he scampered through. Referee Andre Watson didn't call for obstruction; England's first-half frustrations were embodied in that one moment.
‘’There were some nerves," he explains. "But we felt confident because it was a matter of keep doing what we were doing. We believed that we were the fittest team and the best prepared."
From the battle and rain came a piercing moment of clarity. Robinson rolls on the video as scrum-half Matt Dawson feeds the ball to Dallaglio, who has started his charge. He shapes his run towards the last covering Australian defender, Wendell Sailor, in order to draw him into contact, while Mortlock tries to grab him from behind.
"Look here," he says pointing to the screen. "He [Dallaglio] made an arching run, drawing in two defenders. The fact he got the ball away is key to the whole thing. Lawrence has offloaded to Wilkinson, who’s inside in support, there. I mean, just at that point there, if you just have a look, the easier thing would have been to pass it inside."
Hollering for the ball to Wilkinson's right was Ben Cohen. The former Northampton and Sale winger was in the clear having followed the break, one pass away from writing his own name in the history books. Not long after Robinson's try, England launched another break which Cohen looked to score from, only for Matt Dawson to over-cook his kick through. Still ticking from being passed up by Wilkinson earlier, Cohen made sure Dawson knew what he thought of his efforts in no uncertain terms.
"The whole point of our plan was, whenever somebody breaks through, to try and get support either side to give him an option. Thankfully for me, because Johny took the pass from the right, he also knew I was on his left because I was in his eye-line. So as we play it on, the easier pass would have been just to pop it to Ben Cohen on his right, and Ben would have been gone straight under the sticks to score. I'm just holding my run to offer a little bit more width, which has helped keep the defenders out wide."
Has he spoken to Cohen about the incident since? "We have a laugh about it now! Ben's a great friend of mine and we have a laugh about it now. Maybe it should have been him. But I told him, I said, "you know, Jonny just wanted to make sure so he gave it to me!"
From that moment on, the rest is history. There are few better finishers in rugby than Robinson, especially when Mother Nature is on his side.
"I knew it was going to be a foot race and it's 20 metres to score the try. You know in big games, you don’t get many opportunities and it was a case of, ‘I have to finish this’. Just before I scored the try I slid in a few metres just to make sure I didn't get pushed out into touch. Just to go low, use the conditions and slide in beforehand. Then there's no chance of them catching me."
His celebration matched the size of the moment. ‘’It was just an amazing outpouring of emotion. You know, it's a World Cup final and you're playing against your arch rivals in Australia, I just scored a crucial try just before half-time. All the energy, all the tension, all the nerves, all the excitement, and all the adrenaline came out in that one moment of just punching that ball. We had great support over there and it was just, 'come on!'. I was so tired afterwards. It wasn't the run, it was just the adrenaline pumping."
England captain Martin Johnson didn't say much at half-time. Of course, that was the future England coach's style, but it was also built on confidence from knowing his was the best team on the planet. By far. Leading up to the World Cup, England had claimed successive autumn international victories against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand - a feat that hasn't been achieved before or since.
Despite entering the tournament as favourites, England had laboured to the quarter-finals via a brutal encounter with South Africa in the group stages. They seemed in danger of missing out on their destiny in the quarter-finals against Wales, before Robinson changed the course of the game with a trademark burst of speed to set up Will Greenwood, who scored the game-turning try. After kicking their way past France in the semis, Australia awaited.
"I don't know what we would have done had we lost," Robinson concedes. "We'd put so much into it. It was coming towards the end of a lot of people in that team's career. It was the pinnacle in many ways and a nice end to the chapter.
"Everything came together at the right time. Every one of our lives has changed to a degree for the better because of that result. You know, we'll always be World Cup winners. You will meet lots of players who have done really well in the game, extremely well, but have never won a World Cup."
Australia's Elton Flatley dragged his side back into the game with an exhibition in place kicking in the second half. Wilkinson, however, was struggling with his range and missed a handful of drop goal attempts. England built pressure in the second half of extra time, and Matt Dawson's break from the base of a ruck took England deep into enemy territory. There are very few people in the country who don't know how this story ends.
"When Matt Dawson's dummied to go through, I tried to get on his shoulder, but he couldn't get the pass away. Then there was another ruck, and I got involved with that. I was one of the guards. I wasn't doing a great job to be honest as a guard, I was probably more looking back at Jonny slotting over the kick. I should have been facing the other way actually blocking some people....but yeah, so I was at the breakdown as the ball went back to Jonny."
Police estimated that 750,000 people jammed the streets of London when England's men returned as heroes with the Webb Ellis trophy in hand. More waited at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning. Awaiting Sir Clive Woodward's men were not only the masses but the Queen and Prime Minister. England had left respected and come back as the toast of the town.
"There's not a day that goes by where somebody, some random guy on the street, comes up to me and says "I remember when...." Or shakes my hand and says "well done." And I know, even though it was 12 years ago, I know which moment they're talking about.
"They'll then continue to say where they were, what they were doing when I scored the try. And the great thing about sport is, while we love the sport and enjoy playing it, you affect a lot of people in a very positive way. So going round in an open-top bus, in front of a million people or however many it was, around London was just quite surreal. It was like something you would watch in a film or watch other people do. It was just brilliant, an amazing time and one you just never forget."
England haven't won a major competition since that day in Sydney. They may have scooped the Six Nations championship in 2011, but the Grand Slam has eluded them since 2003.
As for England's 'Dad's Army', they soon went their separate ways. A host set off into the sunset. Wilkinson would enter the darkest period of hs life and face a string of injuries that tested him to the limit.
As for Robinson, he would soldier on and feature for England as they reached the final of the World Cup once more in 2007, but history wasn't to be repeated. Still, the memories of that day in 2003 don't diminish.
"A lot of guys have never watched the game," he says. "But I watch it. You've worked too hard. You certainly see a lot of the clips where you've done something wrong. Just being able to share it, you know, rugby's a team game and when you look around and see the guys that have worked just as hard as you to achieve that, it's just brilliant. Sometimes it doesn’t seem real because, at the end of the day, we're just rugby players."
Before Robinson goes, there's time to watch the clip one last time. Still, after all these years and replays, it brings a smile. "It's just a privilege," he says. "To come from the background I did, a council estate in Leeds to playing for England.
"The greatest thing is the memories because you know, shirts will fade, medals will get tarnished, but your memory will be there to remember and share. You can't always pull a medal out, but I can pull the memories anytime.’’