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FEATURE Dan Robson: 'It was a horrific thing that happened and I'm still scarred.'

Dan Robson: 'It was a horrific thing that happened and I'm still scarred.'
1 year ago

Still mentally scarred by what happened at Wasps, Dan Robson is wearing the pain well.

When RugbyPass+ caught up with the recently turned 31-year-old, he was preparing for a spot of sunbathing at his new apartment, complete with swimming pool, on the fringes of Pau, the club and town he now calls home in France.

Expecting to see him on the WhatsApp video call surrounded by a mountain of removals boxes and stressed out, instead Robson was in his shorts, applying the factor 50, and about to enjoy the 28-degree Spring sunshine before training later that afternoon.

No wonder he is tickled pink by his French experience.

“It’s a lovely place, a  bit of a hidden gem. There’s worse places to be,” said Robson, content in the knowledge that he’d missed out on one of the UK’s wettest months on record.

“The town itself is stunning. It is not a big place. We’re pretty much at the foot of the (Pyrénées) mountains and every corner you turn, you are greeted by these stunning mountain views that can kind of make the worst days seem just that little bit better.

“We are an hour away from Biarritz and the beach, and then another half an hour from that is San Sebastian and you’re in Spain. There is so much on your doorstep, and the weather certainly helps.”

As a typically, busy and productive scrum-half, Robson used the time that his wife Elizabeth was back in England, at his brother’s fiancee’s recent Hen-do, sorting through stuff and getting their new abode in order, while at the same time trying to catch up on the French he missed out on at Newcastle-under-Lyme School.

“PE was my favourite lesson, I didn’t pay much attention to languages at school. But if they’d have said it would be useful for rugby purposes, it would have been different,” he admits, not even being able to offer as much as a Gallic shrug.

“Learning the language is tough but we’re having lessons and I am trying to pick up as much as I can as quickly as I can. I can order my weeks’ worth of baguettes and pain au chocolats, and that’s about it. But the boys have been great and there’s a couple of coaches who can speak both languages.

“A few of the boys are a bit further ahead of me (in learning French) and they’ve been able to translate for me as well. It does help that Zach Henry, the 10, is fluent in French. It’s very handy, especially when I first came, he talked me through things and helped me on the pitch. He said it helps because we can speak in English and a lot of the Frenchies don’t understand us so we can get one up on them if we need to.”

Dan Robson
Dan Robson was devastated when Wasps dropped out of the Gallagher Premiership earlier in the season (Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

Last October, Robson was among the 167 Wasps players, coaches and staff to be made redundant after the club entered into administration. It put the frustration of sitting on the bench for all 14 of his England Tests into perspective.

One of the lonest-serving members of the squad, Robson had moved to Wasps from Gloucester in 2015 and made 162 appearances in black and gold, including two Premiership finals against Exeter.

Whilst Robson is happy creating new memories in a different coloured jersey, Wasps’ demise is still an open wound that may never properly heal and is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted in the volatile world of pro rugby.

“It was a pretty horrific thing that happened and I am still probably scarred a little bit and have moments where I am kind of drift off and think about what was and what could have been with that group of players and that group of staff that we had.

“It is pretty tough to see everyone scattered around the world now but we’ve all just had to get on with it. We keep in touch and are still very close and are rooting for each other. Messages pop up in the WhatsApp group every now and again when someone has a win and is on the beers. It is always good to catch up with the lads.

“Luckily we have all pretty much all managed to pick up other gigs and other experiences. That was the big thing for me when I came here, I wanted to experience something different and I have loved every minute of it.

For me, it was just a massive kick in the teeth that I was 30 years old, and I had put a lot into my career and had got to where I had got to, and I was being offered 30-40 grand for the rest of the year.

“I am kind of taking each week as it comes and throwing absolutely everything I have into what I do. I know it is a bit of a cliche but it is something I am taking more seriously after what happened to Wasps.

“Looking too far into the future can be pretty detrimental. That is something I have definitely learned from the Wasps saga.”

Robson signed for Pau the month after Wasps’ Premiership season was abruptly cut short.

Despite it being the worst possible time for recruitment, Pau was one of a few options available to him – but the only workable solution.

Robson, a respected international who was still at the top of his game, was being offered money not that much above the average UK salary.

“Opportunities, I guess, would be a very polite way of saying it,” he said, referencing the Premiership lifelines thrown to him.

“I had an option or two of going to a Premiership club but it would have meant a lot of sacrifices and stuff I was probably wasn’t ready to give up yet, my house (in Leamington Spa) being one of them. I’d have had to sell the house and move.

“For me, it was just a massive kick in the teeth that I was 30 years old, and I had put a lot into my career and had got to where I had got to, and I was being offered 30-40 grand for the rest of the year.

Dan Robson had 14 England caps but he was still forced to scrabble round for his next playing opportunity with Pau (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

“I tried to look at it reasonably, and I obviously I still want to be playing rugby at the highest level I can, so when that Pau opportunity came up for me, it was the right thing to do. If I was going to take a pay cut anywhere and do something different, then why not come here and experience a new league and play in some of the best club stadiums around the world.”

Our swimming poolside chat with Robson comes on the back of ‘derby weekend’ in the Top 14.

The average attendance for that round of fixtures was well over 20,000 with almost double that for Pau’s crucial 30-20 win against Bayonne at Real Sociedad’s football stadium in San Sebastian.

The fervour for rugby in France is something that, in the short time he has been there, has really struck Robson, especially as crowds back home have been on the slide.

“It is different here and it is probably the one thing that stands out, that sets it miles apart from the Premiership,” he said.

“Every week there is a full gameday atmosphere, no matter who you are playing and where you are, it is close to a capacity crowd if not a capacity crowd at every stadium with people there hours before and hours after, enjoying each other’s company.

They just do it right, here. At the Real Sociedad stadium, there were just under 40,000 people, and it was one of the best atmospheres I have ever played in.

“It is very hostile, but as soon as the 80 minutes finishes, the fans are all very appreciative of the effort you’ve given.

“They just do it right, here,” he continued. “With the derby weekends, we had Bayonne at home at Christmas and it was sell out and it was an incredible atmosphere. Then in San Sebastian, at the Real Sociedad stadium, there were just under 40,000 people, and it was one of the best atmospheres I have ever played in. 30,000-plus Bayonne fans and five thousand Pau fans were going absolutely crazy for 80 minutes.

“Walking around and thanking everyone for their support at the end of the match, it kind of felt like you’d won the World Cup. It means so much to the supporters, especially these derbies, and it’s great that we could get a win.”

With adult tickets for Top 14 games available for as little as €12 and the national team doing well and a home Rugby World Cup on the horizon, rugby is hugely popular in France right now.

No wonder the former Wasp is buzzing again.

“People want to come and see rugby games and they make it very accessible here. It is an exciting time to be in France,” he said.

“My old man (former England & Moseley scrum-half, Simon Robson) has commented a few times on how good the atmosphere is.”

Another different aspect to life in French rugby is the existence of relegation.

Pau are in the thick of a battle to survive in the Top 14. Just one place separates them from the bottom two.

With four of their five remaining games against bottom-half-of-the-table teams, Robson and Pau probably won’t have to exercise the relegation clause in his contract beyond this season.

Dan Robson
Robson is a strong advocate for promotion and relegation in the Premiership (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Even so, the jeopardy is there and Robson, who learnt his trade at Hartpury College, says the league is all the better for it.

“It is great, I have always been an advocate of relegation. It brings the best out of the competition, it brings the best out of the team and I just think it adds that extra bit of pressure.

“If there wasn’t relegation right now it would be tough to finish the season because there wouldn’t be a lot to play for. It adds that little bit extra in games and that is definitely something different I have seen in the last couple of years with no relegation in England.”

The argument put forward by ring-fencers is that the removal of relegation liberates players to play more expansively.

Robson, however, believes the coaching psychology in England has more to do with that because, in France, clubs aren’t shackled by the fear of the drop.

“For me, at Pau anyway, it (the game plan) is probably a lot less detailed. We analysis the game so much in England and sometimes you can get lost a little bit in that whereas here there is more freedom. They don’t go mad if you make a mistake and they don’t hold on to mistakes if they happen very often. You just work on how you can make that mistake better.

As a younger guy coming through in England you can sometimes be worried about making mistakes which is quite a negative way of looking at the game.

“As a younger guy coming through in England you can sometimes be worried about making mistakes which is quite a negative way of looking at the game. Here the younger guys are encouraged to play and encouraged to make mistakes, just as long as they learn from them and are not making them time after time.”

Pau head coach Sébastien Piqueronies may have ruffled a few feathers and a certain referee’s collar – his physical abuse of referee Sam Grove-White earning him a lengthy ban back in December – but as far as Robson is concerned, the former France World Rugby U20 Championship-winning coach has been great to work with.

“Seb’s been brilliant. He’s given me a lot of confidence to go out there and put my stamp of things.

“His history with the under 20s is very impressive and we have got a lot of young lads in the squad and it is a big season for them and for us. If we can stay in the Top 14 they will have a lot of experience going into next year.

“It is comparable to how it was with Wasps, a lot of young lads have got a couple of seasons under their belt now. your Charlie Atkinsons, your Tom Willis’s, your Will Porters … people like that that aren’t so young any more, and they’ve got 50 Prem games under their belt. That’s, hopefully, where we will be in the next year. A lot of these young guys will have had good Top 14 experience and will be able to step up again next year.”

Dan Robson
Robson has been one of the best scrum halves in England in the last decade (Photo by Alex Davidson – RFU/Getty Images)

A self-confessed rugby nause, Robson has immersed himself in the history of the club and chatted to his team-mates about what playing for Pau means. After only four months there, Robson doesn’t have the same connection but you wouldn’t have guessed it by the way he has been darting around the Stade du Hameau, giving his all.

“I am desperate for us to stay up and if I can show that side and put 100% into the shirt, the fans will respond well to that. That is all you can ask for.

“I don’t have the history that the boys who’ve been here six or seven years or more and seen the culture that they’ve brought in, but I was lucky enough to have that at Wasps so I understand that.

“ It is great to chat to some of the French lads and understand how passionate they are about some of these games and how passionate they are about the club. I think it was important for me to learn a bit about that when I got here; learn about the club’s ambitions, learn about the club’s history.”

At this point, half an hour later, it was time for Robson to apply another layer of suncream and we bid each other adieu … in English, of course.


Graham 431 days ago

Wasps owners seem to get incredibly leniency from commentators given the way they ran the club into oblivion

beverley 437 days ago

Wishing you and Pau every success. Great article.

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