Jason Robinson has terrorised defenders in both codes of his sport all over the world, but he holds no fear for the youngsters at his boyhood Rugby League club.
Robinson, famed for his electrifying pace and side-step, returned to The Hunslet Club, to meet the children now following in his footsteps, and to celebrate the efforts of grassroots clubs and volunteers ahead of the Rugby League World Cup, which will be held in England in October and November.
The former Wigan and Great Britain wing, joined Hunslet aged 12 and was quickly nicknamed Billy Whizz, after the fast-running character in the comic, The Beano. However, Hunslet’s new generation feel Robinson, now aged 48, still has ‘a little bit of work to do’ on his pace.
‘You were nearly in last place,’ teased one bright spark during an impromptu training session.
In truth, Robinson looks as fit today as he did when he gracefully retired from rugby in 2007, at which stage he was well into his ‘second career’ in Rugby Union.
And he is as passionate about the game now as when he first turned up to this thriving club in south Leeds in 1986.
He is back to highlight the invaluable work of Rugby League coaches and helpers up and down the country, and to launch a competition, in partnership with Vodafone and MailOnline, to recognise their brilliant work.
Robinson wants to gather nominations for the unsung heroes of the game, whether they be the coaches themselves, or the parents who ferry youngsters to and from matches and training, or teachers who give them the confidence to pursue their passions and dreams.
The flying winger knows that behind every member of England’s men’s, women’s and wheelchair squads at this World Cup, will be a bunch of motivational, selfless supporters who gave those players the support they needed when they were growing up. And Robinson wants to encourage more just like them.
‘This is where it all started for me,’ he told Mail Online, at the side of the pitch where he first scorched the turf with his trademark bursts for the try line.’
Robinson was a keen sportsman at school, excelling in tennis and football, but it was rugby he loved and at The Hunslet Club, within a couple of miles of where he was born and raised through a troubled childhood, he learned the game in which he would make his name.
‘Areas like this, there are a lot of challenges. So, to come here is escapism,’ he told Sportstmail. ‘You didn’t have to think about other things.’
Robinson graduated to the senior team at what was then called, Hunslet Parkside, before being signed by Wigan, winning every domestic trophy and 19 international caps with England and Great Britain.
At the age of 26, he switched codes, playing for Sale Sharks in Rugby Union, with whom he won the Guinness Premiership and claimed 51 England caps, winning the 2003 World Cup in Australia by beating the hosts in a famous game settled by Jonny Wilkson’s last-gasp drop goal. Robinson, who went on to become the first black England captain, scored the only try of the game.
For such a decorated sportsman, Robinson is as humble as ever and he readily recalls the difference others made in his own life, not least the mum of another Rugby League legend, Garry Schofield, who offered him and his mates endless encouragement while she ran the coffee bar at Parkside.
And then there were the coaches and PE teacher at his school, who encouraged him to pursue his dream.
‘To get a youth club that is committed to kids and wants to see them thrive and prosper there is no better place to go,’ reflects Robinson.
‘They are not bothered who you are, what background you come from, what religion you are. Some kids don’t always get a daily meal. They can come down here in the evening and get a meal for free.’
It is almost 40 years since a small, young Robinson first came through the gates at The Hunslet Club, which has gone from strength to strength.
It now has almost 3,500 members and offers Rugby League to girls and boys, but also dance, boxing, cheerleading and even a mechanics workshop, among much else.
Robinson is fondly remembered and always welcome.
‘I was in my twenties when Jason first came through the door,’ said former volunteer, now club chief executive, Dennis Robbins. ‘He was the tiniest little fella, but he had the quickest legs I have ever seen.’
Robinson, a veteran of three World Cup finals in the two rugby codes, hopes this tournament will leave a legacy of volunteering. He wants to demonstrate how important those unsung heroes are supporting young people, and celebrate them, regardless of whether a child goes onto a career in the game.
‘The Rugby League World Cup is going to inspire, hopefully, so many kids from clubs like this, maybe to pick up the ball for the first time,’ he said.
‘Picking up a rugby ball, all of a sudden, I found something I was good at. So, sometimes you just need to try a sport.
The youngsters at Hunslet were eager to quiz the club’s most famous son, since he achieved his remarkable feats before they were born. It is easy for them to think Robinson, or any successful sports star, was born to it.
But the local lad had to work for everything he achieved, with the support of those who took him under their wings.
‘Have you ever lost a game?’ enquired one awe-struck little lad.
‘Do you know what, I have lost so many games,’ replied Robinson, with a smile.
His most painful defeats include both a Rugby League World Cup final (to Australia in 1995) and a Rugby Union showpiece (to South Africa in 2007). And then there was the time his school team were battered 80-0 after only seven players turned up.
So, yes, he has lost a few, but there was always someone there to help him up. ‘And it makes you work harder,’ he reflects.
Jason Robinson is a Vodafone Ambassador, and he wants to hear about people lending a hand to young Rugby League players in their communities. To nominate a hero in your club, make sure you enter their name in the Pride of Your League competition