Tom Robinson reckons the Blues have sourced the ingredient to propel them one step further to a breakthrough, bonafide Super Rugby title this year. That comes in the form of another redhead.
“You think you couldn’t get any stronger and then you add another ginger in there,” Robinson, the charismatic Northland and Blues six-cum-lock known as ‘Sauce’, laughs.
“When I started at the Blues it was just me. Then we brought in Finlay Christie and we got to the finals. Now with three of us we’re starting a legacy.”
After losing last year’s inaugural Super Rugby Pacific final to the Crusaders, the Blues coaching staff have undergone changes that largely slipped under the radar.
Joe Schmidt joining the All Blacks fulltime last year allows Tana Umaga to slide back in seamlessly, albeit in a different role to his previous defence brief, this time focusing on mental skills and mindset alongside technical and tactical coaching.
And with Ben Afeaki moving on to the New York-based Major League Rugby side, former Hurricanes and New Zealand Māori lock Paul Tito slots in to strengthen the Blues’ forwards coaching mix.
“The Fish is awesome,” Robinson says of Tito. “He’s got a strong set-piece focus around the lineout. We’ve all been really impressed with him and how he’s working with Tom Coventry. I’ve learnt a lot, and being a ginger he’s a good dude too.”
Given the Blues lost 10 lineouts to cripple their attack in the 21-7 defeat in front of a sold-out and expectant Eden Park crowd during last year’s final, injecting specific lineout nous makes sense. Such an underwhelming performance, on the grand stage, was a deflating end to a season in which the Blues made major strides as they manufactured their 15-match unbeaten run en route to the home finale. “We definitely got taught a lesson in that final but it’s still important to look back and be proud of what we achieved. You can see already there’s a lot of hunger and desire to go that next step, be better and take out the comp,” Robinson reflects.
“The whole experience will be huge for us. The Crusaders have been in so many finals and they stepped up to play like a champion team. We weren’t at our best in those final few games. We had that really close semifinal against the Brumbies that could’ve gone either way. And against the Crusaders we got put under pressure and we didn’t react how we’d like. It started at the set-piece but it was also the breakdown too.
“That’s a lesson for us, making sure when we hit that finals time we’re playing our best footy.” Those lingering frustrations, and the first-time finals experience for many, leaves the Blues well placed for another tilt at this year’s crown. Their culture is strong, allowing players the freedom to express individuality, while harnessing demanding training standards.
With a host of All Blacks, fringe contenders and future stars, the Blues boast depth across most positions other franchises can only dream of, too.
Last year’s victory against the Waratahs in Sydney, thanks to a Zarn Sullivan dropped goal – from a team containing 14 starting changes – is testament to the depth in quality throughout the Blues squad.
“The level of competition within the squad was crazy. When you have that the level of training increases and that leads onto your performance. When the team is named, they train against the team that is not selected. Sometimes that second team were tougher than the opposition we were coming up against. That’s what you want. Any one of those players could’ve stepped up and played in those finals matches.”
Over the past five seasons, Robinson’s influence on the Blues has consistently grown to the point he has captained the team. Despite being surrounded by an All Blacks-laden forward pack, his unrelenting work-rate always stands out.
Yet since last year’s Super Rugby campaign, Robinson endured a challenging time. He managed two games during Northland’s impressive NPC season after a concussion caused vertigo that only recently began to subside.
All Blacks Sam Whitelock and Will Jordan suffered similar issues last year.
“It was another niggly season with the Tanis. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to captain as many games as I would’ve liked. It would’ve been nice to get through that semi and into the final but we can definitely be proud of what we achieved. You get up north, out of the hustle and bustle of the city life, and enjoy that Northland lifestyle. There’s so many good buggers up there.
“I had what they call vertigo. It’s an inner ear thing. You can get it from an ear infection, surfing, high impact to the head, which causes displacement in the inner ear.
“I had to find out and make sure that’s what it was – and it wasn’t coming from cognitive or a concussion sort of thing. At the moment I’m getting back into it in this pre-season block. I started to get mine after I’d had a concussion so just the impact from that had caused it.
“I’m getting back into the swing of things now. During the pre-season, you’ve got lots of time to get the confidence back again. It’s been good so far. I should be good to go.”
Robinson has frequently switched between six and lock for the Blues. With All Blacks Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Dalton Papali’i among the stacked loose forwards, Robinson expects his versatility to continue this season.
“I honestly don’t mind whether I’m playing six or lock – I’ll just do what’s best for the team. There’s parts of six I like, and parts of lock I really like. At six it’s cool when you’re out on the edge and you can get a bit of ball in space; get the locks and lanky legs going. But I also feel a big part of my attributes are getting into the work.
“I love hitting rucks. Sometimes I’m happy going a whole game cleaning rucks if that’s what I’ve got to do. You get that a lot at lock. You’re going to be into it from the first whistle. Whereas sometimes as a six you’re out on the edge on attack and defence so you have a different role to play. There’s aspects about both I like. Wherever I’m needed I’ll play.”
Robinson’s consistent form regularly sees him mentioned as an All Blacks contender. Starting consistently at blindside would help his case but such is his selfless nature, he’s content with his positional juggling act.
“Team first is my mentality. If we’re playing well as a team those opportunities will come. It is a dream of mine; I’ll be honest about that. But I’m not going to get caught up in it. I’ll do everything I can to be at my best to perform for the Blues and push for higher honours. If it happens, that’ll be cool. If not, as long as I’ve given my all I can be happy with that.”
Time on the sidelines allowed Robinson to get his side hustle off the ground last year. He and Blues lock Josh Goodhue teamed up to launch Zinc or Swim a year ago, and they recently added Sundaze sunscreen to their business stable. With those natural products stocked in 70 stores nationwide, the self-proclaimed pasty-white battlers are increasingly busy off the field.
“It’s a lot more work than I thought but you make the work. During the season you get home some days just after lunch so you’ve got the whole day. Do you just sit on the couch or try to be proactive? It’s so rewarding even when someone buys one pot of zinc.”
As for on the field, there’s no ambiguity about the prize the Blues are chasing this season. “You can’t expect just to take off where you finished. You’ve got to earn it. You can already see everyone is all over that.”
Amid those aspirations, Robinson is a rare character who appreciates the privileged position he has earned.
“I remember when I first came to uni down here and I was playing for Varsity prems in 2014 with Jimmy and Jordan Lay and Marcel Renata. Now I get to rock up with a bunch of close mates and we get paid to play footy. It’s epic.”
Such a throwback casts perspective on Robinson’s journey from Kerikeri to being the invaluable glue in the Blues’ engine room.
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