Tom Robinson, he of the long, flame-coloured hair and penchant for wisecracks and generally not taking himself too seriously, was as surprised as anyone when Leon MacDonald asked him to replace the injured Patrick Tuipulotu as temporary captain of the Blues.
Robinson, 26, hadn’t led a team since he was at Kerikeri High School in the Far North of New Zealand.
And, despite his obvious talents on attack and defence and in the lineout, Robinson couldn’t even break into the starting XV in the early stages of Super Rugby Aotearoa, with Akira Ioane keeping him out of the No 6 jersey.
But some eye-catching displays off the reserves bench – he was outstanding against the Chiefs in Hamilton in March – saw him displace Ioane and he was given the nod to lead the team once Tuipulotu suffered a neck injury which has sidelined the big lock since early April.
So Robinson, the Northland surfer who owns a dog called Rocco and a van called Suzie, was given the top job.
He hasn’t disappointed. It was Robinson’s utter commitment and leadership which helped the Blues home in a difficult match against the Chiefs at Eden Park in their final game of a disappointing campaign.
He’s a crowd favourite because he’s easy to spot but also because he never stops moving. He’s always been direct with the ball and surprisingly quick. Another key attribute is his workrate on defence. He’s all sparks and momentum like a human Catherine Wheel on Guy Fawkes night. None of that has changed.
What has changed is perhaps the way he thinks about the game.
“You always want your team to do well no matter what but when you’re captain there’s that extra drive and motivation for this team to be successful,” Robinson tells The XV.
You should hear some of the speeches I’ve given before we’ve run out. They’ve been a disaster.
Blues stand-in captain Tom Robinson
“One of the differences is trying to notice and identify those special moments in a game; sometimes it’s when you’ve got momentum and it’s how to use that to be ruthless and relentless, and sometimes it’s when you don’t have momentum and it’s how you get those small wins to get it back.
“That’s where you need a good relationship with your other leaders and especially your game drivers. I’ve enjoyed that aspect of it.”
Robinson laughs when asked about his leadership style – whether he’s more a man of action or a man of tub-thumping motivational speeches.
“That’s a good question,” he replies.
“You should hear some of the speeches I’ve given before we’ve run out. They’ve been a disaster, man – the boys will tell you about it. We’ve been pretty much laughing before we’ve run out, so I definitely lead with my actions.”
One can only imagine the hijinks at home; Robinson’s three housemates are Blues forwards Adrian Choat, Sam Darry and James Lay. “We run a pretty tight ship,” he says. Or during the surfing trips up north. “There’s a crew – about six of us. We’ve got all the lingo, all the gear, all the hair but no idea.”
Asked whether he had to temper some of his instincts in terms of providing humour given his new role, Robinson replies: “I don’t take myself seriously but I take what I do seriously. One thing that came through when I was announced as captain, a lot of people messaged me and said ‘just continue being yourself’, so that’s what I’ve done. I’ve learned over the years when it’s appropriate and when it’s not – probably early in my career up north I didn’t always get it right. I haven’t changed a lot – I haven’t changed anything, really.”
Robinson has long been on the All Black radar due to his size – he’s 1.98m and 110kg and can easily cover lock – and X-factor, but injuries have held him back. He joined the Blues in 2019, impressed hugely, but suffered a serious knee injury in 2020 which halted his progress (he injured his other knee in 2017 which ruled him out of the entire provincial season).
<aking the All Blacks is a dream of mine but if it’s not to happen it’s not the end of the world. I’m striving towards it, but it’s not my focus.
Robinson on his longer-term goals
He missed last month’s Crusaders game with concussion but otherwise is fit and healthy – “touch wood,” he says – and, along with incumbent Shannon Frizell from the Highlanlders, Blues teammate Ioane, and possible wildcard Ethan Blackadder, Robinson may come into the thinking of All Blacks coach Ian Foster this year.
“I’d love to get there but it’s not at the forefront of my mind,” he says. “At the front of my mind is winning with this team. Yes, making the All Blacks is a dream of mine but if it’s not to happen it’s not the end of the world. I’m striving towards it, but it’s not my focus.”
Robinson’s father, Alistair, a lock, played four matches for the All Blacks in the 1980s.
“Yeah, so lots of pressure – if I don’t make the All Blacks I won’t get an inheritance,” deadpans the younger Robinson.
“I never saw him play. I’d be keen to get some clips to watch – you know how the old buggers are when they talk about what they did.”
Don’t get the wrong idea – Robinson says it all with pride. And there is pride too in his reflection on a first performance in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, a 50-3 victory over the Rebels in Melbourne.
After a disappointing finish to Super Rugby Aotearoa where unforced errors, a high penalty count against them, and a general lack of concentration conspired against the Blues, they looked a far more effective outfit against the Rebels.
“It was a good start – not a great start,” Robinson said. “We sat down and had some pretty tough conversations with ourselves [after Super Rugby Aotearoa]. We carried on that attitude and drove those standards throughout the week and we continued to drive them in that game. It was just a really good buzz. It felt like we were playing for each other. That’s what I asked for in that performance.
“There were times when we weren’t good and we need to be good to win this competition. We need to be great to win this competition – that’s what we’re striving for.”
Told that the Blues appear to have the all-round firepower to worry every Australian side, Robinson replies: “Yep, we’re here to win it that’s for sure.”
There were times when we weren’t good and we need to be good to win this competition. We need to be great to win this competition – that’s what we’re striving for.
Robinson on the Blues’ finish to Super Rugby Aotearoa
When not in game mode, Robinson is rarely short of a comeback – it’s another reason why the Blues fans love him.
Last year, on a Wednesday night, he and Blues lock Jacob Pierce visited a team of 10-year-olds at the North Shore Rugby Club on a general fan-engagement activity. Three days later those same boys were standing outside Eden Park preparing to play in a curtain-raiser for the Blues v Chiefs match when Robinson walked past.
“G’day boys,” Robinson said.
“Wow,” replied one. “Have you got bigger since we last saw you?”
“No. Maybe you’ve shrunk,” Robinson replied.
If that boy asked the same question this year, he might get a different answer. Robinson is still the same talented, funny, young bloke. He still doesn’t take life too seriously. But he’s growing all the same.