Dan Robson and the England Scrum-half Dilemma

Published on: July 29, 2016

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January 2016 will be etched in the mind of both Joe Simpson and Dan Robson for the upcoming season. Joe Simpson had been the first choice scrumhalf at Wasps until he suffered an ankle injury during Wasps’ European win over Leinster. The injury would see him side-lined for ten weeks. In steps Dan Robson, transferred from Gloucester this past season, where he had been playing second fiddle to Greig Laidlaw. Those ten weeks saw a winning streak of eleven wins by Wasps, with Dan Robson at the helm. A number of man-of-the-match performances placed the 24-year-old Robson firmly in the spotlight. Robson came up through the England U20 team, followed with a performance in the Saxons against the Scotland and was chosen to play for England against the Barbarians in the summer of 2014.

If Simpson had not been injured prior to the start of the Six Nations there would have been calls for his inclusion in the England setup. Due to his unfortunate injury, however, it was Robson who was being tipped for a debut in the white jersey come the summer tour. Instead Eddie opted to only take his preferred duo; Youngs and Care. Robson was relegated to the Saxons tour to South Africa.

Eddie Jones is a self-proclaimed insomniac, he has previously discussed his desire for depth in every position, and he will no doubt have spent, or will be spending, hours poring over the Saxons games looking for individuals to fill gaps come the 2017 6N. The case for Robson to be given a chance will be growing over the next few months, when the new Premiership season begins.

Ben Youngs and Danny Care have, undoubtedly, been a core duo at the heart of this English rugby renaissance. They encapsulate the Jones era, both with contrasting strengths but working in tandem for the benefit of the team.

Youngs is a scrum half in the Gregan and Genia mould, a player who likes to manipulate the defensive line with his long running arcs at the outside shoulder of the closest defender. The crabbing he does, although slowing down the service of the ball to the 10, pulls in the closest one or two defenders and allows any runner on the inside shoulder or with a direct line to be put into space. Youngs is a combative 9 and the fact that his service is often slow reflects his style of play, preferring to taunt the opposition rather than distribute immediately.

Ben Youngs Crabbing

Care, on the other hand, offers a different kind of expertise. His pace and decision making are at times exceptional and he brings a spark to his play that has the potential to truly ignite a backline with speed of service and sniping runs around the breakdown. For example, in the opening try of the game against France, Care had been instructed by Eddie to look for gaps. Spotting a mismatch with an ambling French forward, he put the pedal to the metal and showed his wheels all the way to the try line. Both Youngs and Care are excellent players and are currently working very well together in the setup of Eddie’s new-look England team. However, neither of them are the complete article.

Danny Care vs. France 2016 6N

The conundrum facing Eddie Jones is whether to stick it out with two proven players that, combined, offer the skills that he needs. Or to chance a player that has the potential to do it all. Dan Robson lit up the latter half of the Premiership season with his scintillating play and it would not be a surprise to see him included in the training squad over the next year.

Game Management

His speed of service and sweeping defensive line make Robson a consistently impressive “petit General”. Robson is able to consistently adopt his pace-driven pattern of play and maintain that tempo through his decision-making. His consistent accuracy and speed of service allow for the back line to regularly maintain a high level of pace on the ball, playing to Wasps strengths on the outside channels.

His kicking ability and variety gives him the scope of options when on the back foot. However, Youngs also offers an impressive ability with the boot, which has been vital in the command of territory in this new English setup. Particularly with the chase from Nowell and Watson being fast and accurate and the lineout, being used as a potent weapon on their own and the opposition’s ball. Robson is also, considering his size, reliable in the tackle. He is occasionally found in the far channel of the press defence but, more often than not, he is acting as a sweeper for any short placed kicks or any lumbering forwards that break the first tackle.Frequently, when watching Wasps, you will see him putting his body on the line, even if it is only to act as a speed bump and slow the man down. However, I’ve lost count of the number of times you suggest that “he won’t bring him down”, or “he won’t catch him up”, only to be proven wrong.

Overall Robson’s game management and speed of service were second to none in the Aviva premiership this year. His decision-making does have momentary lapses, but it is often more in execution of the decision rather than choosing the incorrect option.

Dan Robson’s service

Kicking

In this day and age,kicking ability is vital. Robson has honed his skill for putting up contestable kicks. This gifts his teammates great opportunities and puts the opposition on the back foot.

The evidence of a truly gifted kicker, however, is being able to vary your kicking style with assurance, thus forcing the opposition back three to be constantly guessing what is coming. Whether a kick for touch and territory or a kick that allows your wingers to compete in the air for possession. Robson has proven over the course of this debut season at Wasps his ability to vary his kicking style and therefore gaining an advantage over his opposition.

Dan Robson Grubber Kick

Pace

Throughout his career to date it is evident that Robson not only looks to play at a fast pace, he also has the personal speed to back that up. The man has gas for days.

Robson is able to vary his play in regard to the pace of service. Often off of the back of a set piece he will determine that it is vital to get it to the outside backs as soon as possible Refusing to crab, he puts an accurate ball straight to the 10 instead. Last season his speedy service was instrumental to the release of Piutau, Wade and Halai. Next season will be no different when unleashing Beale and Daly. Both will require his speed of service for their central running lines.

That’s not to say Robson will never crab. He has made the decision to do so on occasion to release forwards on hard lines or pass the ball behind them to open space. Youngs, the current incumbent, has had criticism of his crabbing runs from the back of the ruck that can often lead to slower ball for the fly-half to play with. This was apparent in the opening game against Australia where George Ford was struggling with the time he had on the ball due to Youngs’ delay of the pass. But Robson’s willingness to vary his game variety allows for Wasps to build momentum as a team every phase.

Dan Robson’s pace

Spark

Robson is partial to quick tap penalties, the old chip-and-chase, and sniping breaks around the breakdown. All make him a terrifying attacking threat with front foot ball. One of the finest examples of his electric ability can be seen in September 2014, while still at Gloucester. Admittedly his opposition were the rugby equivalent of a sieve, namely London Welsh, but the spark is undeniable. Robson spots a numbers mismatch to his left and takes a quick tap penalty in his own 22, running a line to open up space for those outside him. An opportunistic pass leads to a length of the field run by the Gloucester backs.

During this phase of play he ran straight lines at blistering speed with two hands on the ball, leading to the defence being forced to cover the possibility of his running line and forcing space for the try. His infamous chip and chase try against Saracens at the end of the 2015/16 season saw him bamboozle the Sarries defence and skip down the touch line for one of the scores of the season demonstrating exceptional awareness, speed and natural ability.

A moment that accurately represents the skill level he possesses was the finish of a 40m try for the Saxons where, having sustained a leg injury just moments ago, Robson bamboozled three South African would be tacklers with his footwork at half pace to score in the corner. Robson undoubtedly brings a spark to his game that requires a defensive line to be constantly aware of his threat and gas. Much like Care, he represents a potent energy in attack that, at a given moment, can open up a defensive line.

Dan Robson Try vs. Gloucester

What this information encapsulates is Robson has the energy and ability. What he must prove over the coming season is consistency. If he does that, it should be enough for Eddie Jones and his team wake up and take notice. However, this season he has taken steps to ensure this with a personal tally of 6 tries and 7 assists in his 28 appearances for Wasps. This will come from Robson himself coupled with the Wasps performances, but he will be helped by the arrival of some big name signings, including his halfback partner Danny Cipriani. This coming season we could see the rise of Wasps as a force to be reckoned with after a half-decade hiatus.

A word, however, for that injury in January of this year to Joe Simpson, who had until that moment been the first choice scrummy and playing out of his “ankle high” socks. He is also deserving of consideration and it will be interesting who out of the two of them is shown the faith of Dai Young to start the season.

Finally, Robson, despite an outstanding season, is not the sole (potential) successor to the England number 9 jersey. The young Saracens scrum half Ben Spencer, although sitting down the pecking order, has been tipped by Neil de Kock, the former Springbok, to be “world class” in an interview with The Rugby Paper in April of last year. Spencer has been moulded to fill the boots of the Saracens archetypal scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth, playing a structured and kicking orientated gameplay. However, that is not to say he lacks in attacking spontaneity, but he certainly does not have the speed and looseness to his game of Robson. The two players represent the next installment in the “who should start” debate that has engulfed the English rugby playing nation over the number 9 jersey. The question comes down to a matter of “when” the usurpers will take over from the established duo, not “if”, especially considering Eddie has one eye always set on 2019 RWC.

Dan Robson vs. South Africa A

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