Sean Robinson never thought he would use his physics degree, love for problem-solving and mathematical aptitude to decipher Gallagher Premiership lineouts.
In a parallel universe, the rangy Newcastle lock is examining wind turbines up a weather-beaten hill or ensconced in some offshore power station. In the here and now, he is Falcons’ set-piece professor.
“(The physics background) does help, to be honest,” Robinson tells RugbyPass+. “Essentially, it’s looking for patterns of movement, patterns of space, and how people are presenting a picture.
“It’s being able to analyse that fairly quickly and call to the right space. It stands me in good stead. I enjoy having an understanding of things. I’ve got a very logical brain. It’s one of the reasons I’ve had such an interest in that area of the game.”
Lineouts these days look complex enough to be sketched out like theorem on science class whiteboards. Never mind the free-for-all maelstrom of the amateur era, when the set-piece was a violent gauntlet and earning a physics degree might have meant a lock forward lost his tight-five club membership.
That traditional reputation of Kingston Park being a boggy, wet, windy ground doesn’t help. We’ve had to work pretty hard, even since the new artificial pitch went down in 2014, to try and change that.
But then, this Newcastle side are all about dynamiting outdated perceptions. Some in English rugby may sneer at Kingston Park as a ‘cold-Tuesday-night-in-Stoke’ kind of away day, where you’ll be roughed up and booted to death by a team only interested in physicality.
“That traditional reputation of Kingston Park being a boggy, wet, windy ground doesn’t help,” Robinson says. “We’ve had to work pretty hard as a group, even since the new artificial pitch went down in 2014, to try and change that and get away from it.
“We try to play a more exciting brand of rugby which gives guys a chance to showcase their talents. We’re finally giving a platform for guys to show what they’re about through attacking rugby. We have had to change the perception a little.”
These Falcons want to play. And how they can carve you asunder. They have Adam Radwan, who induces a state of sense-scrambling, limb-melting panic in opponents whenever he gets a touch, scored a fabulous hat-trick on his England debut in the summer and already has two tries in as many games this term.
Dean Richards, the redoubtable director of rugby, has a group of players undervalued and underappreciated beyond their northeast stronghold.
“Guys like Mark Wilson over the past few years, he was a big step for us as a club, going and doing so well internationally,” Robinson says. “Having someone like that gives younger guys a lot of confidence that maybe they’re capable of doing the same.
“Now you can say the club is in as good a place as it’s ever been with England, with Chicky and Blam doing well, Radders has been unbelievable, and Trev Davison, a quiet Geordie character going about his business, it’s great to see him getting recognition.
“The main change at the club is the confidence, and the outlook going in to seasons is a bit more positive. When I joined, we were always in that relegation battle, that scrap. Now, there is the ambition to push on, see if we can get top six, get back into that top four if we can. The club and playing group are just more ambitious. It’s been quite nice to be a part of that.
“We’ve got young guys coming through who are really pushing that, who want to be successful and win things. That’s a pretty significant step forward.”
At the start of uni, I was probably 90KG. Now I’m 110-112KG. Twenty kilos… that’s quite a lot of weight to carry.
Robinson has evolved and blossomed with his only professional club. In rugby terms, he is a late bloomer, overlooked by Premiership scouts until his final year at Durham University when England Students honours thrust him into recruitment discussions.
“I didn’t really think about turning professional; I was never involved with any academy systems, I just enjoyed playing,” the 30-year-old says.
“Playing for England Students was a massive springboard. Academy coaches watch those closely. I did alright in them and they gave me a platform. I gained a bit of interest professionally.
“My last year at uni, I started speaking to Mark Laycock here, who still runs the academy. He asked, ‘would you be interested in giving it a go and trying to play professionally?’. I’d never really thought of trying to be a professional player until it happened.”
The jump from university rugby to Premiership brutality is more of an Evil Kinevil-esque soar. Robinson had to layer slabs of beef to his gangling 6ft 4ins frame.
“At the start of uni, I was probably 90KG. Now I’m 110-112KG. Twenty kilos… that’s quite a lot of weight to carry. I was a pretty lanky 18 year-old kid. A couple of years at uni gave me time to fill out.
“As soon as you enter a professional environment, you’re given all the tools and nutrition. The protein shakes are there. If you apply yourself, it’s easy to put the weight on and get up to a Premiership build.”
Eight years in the Falcons pack have honed his body and sharpened his wits. Robinson ran in five tries last season, breached a century of Newcastle appearances and captained the side on several occasions.
Eddie Jones recognised his excellence with a summer call-up, only for a training-ground knee injury to torpedo his chances of wearing the rose.
“It was an honour I wasn’t really expecting,” says Robinson. “I didn’t consider myself to be in the mix. You’d probably argue second-row in this country is one of the best in the world – a lot of really talented players in my position across the league.
“I was hugely excited. A lovely experience as well. I was only there for two or three days, but it was a window into what international rugby can be. Mixing with a few guys from other clubs, you don’t get as much access to different philosophies, ways of thinking and playing, so it was nice to get ideas from what others are doing.
“Injuries are part and parcel of the game; I’ve had my fair share and you do learn to roll with the punches. You have to have a positive outlook on it. You have to use it as an opportunity to get better.
“Physically, it is tough playing a year in the Premiership, so I tried to use the three months I had to rehab to recover other areas of my body, get rid of all the niggles and get myself in the best possible shape for this year.”
There’s that rational, physics-driven mind again. And the grit has paid off. Round one, Kingston Park, swashbuckling champions Harlequins in town: Robinson hoovers up a wayward Danny Care parabola and gallops off to send Louis Schreuder in at the corner.
“I didn’t know who was chasing me, so I thought I’d better pass it.”
In previous years, we’d have gone to the Rec and been completely over the moon to have won, regardless of the bonus point. We’re starting to make those steps, look up rather than down.
A pulsating contest was edged by Quins, but Newcastle showed their attacking snarl in putting Bath to the sword last Saturday. Radwan, Stephens and McGuigan steamed over for fine first-half tries. The crucial fourth, though, eluded them.
“It was a weird one really, because it’s very rare you’re going to come away from the Rec disappointed not to have a try bonus point,” says Robinson. “We probably were. We left that bonus point out there. We had plenty opportunities.
“That is perhaps a change from previous years, when we’d have gone to the Rec and been completely over the moon to have won, regardless of the bonus point. It’s a good sign. We’re starting to make those steps, have more confidence and look up rather than down.”
On Saturday, Wasps venture north. Another knee problem deprives Robinson of his place in the home pack. Lee Blackett’s troops are fresh from a 44-8 evisceration of Bristol Bears, and were one of only four sides to win in Newcastle last season.
“It’s a mindset shift in how we want to approach the game,” Robinson goes on. “We know how important those bonus points are at the end of the season.
“That’s why we were so disappointed on Saturday because if you get those points over the course of a season, they make a huge difference to where you finish. That’s one of the reasons we weren’t that high up last season – we kept scoring three tries. At least you’re scoring three, but we couldn’t get over for that fourth.
“There is a change across the league, but we’re all aware how important those bonus points are. That gives you a mindset to go out and attack.”
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