- Former All Black scrumhalf Mark Robinson, who featured in three Tests for his country from 1998 to 2001, talks about the North vs South trial match on Saturday.
- The ex-Northampton Saints player addresses South Africa’s potential defection to align with the sides in the north and how it would affect the Australasian teams.
- Robinson also shares his views on the Black Lives Matter movement and explains why the South African players at Sale, who didn’t take a knee, shouldn’t be vilified
Sport24 asked: What was your take on the inaugural Aotearoa event?
Mark Robinson: The Crusaders claimed the Super Rugby Aotearoa title but the Blues’ resurgence was very much long overdue. They have been the perennial underachievers for so many years, having previously set the benchmark right when Super Rugby kicked off. Blues head coach Leon MacDonald is really in charge now and has that Crusaders mentality of bringing the best out of the players. It’s exactly what Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson does and he has earned the respect for what he has done. He thinks outside the box and is a new-age coach who really understands the players. He empowers them and it allows for confidence and freedom to be able to express themselves. The introduction of Beauden Barrett has brought the Blues’ level up and they now have a nice blend of good quality coming through.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the North vs South trial match?
Mark Robinson: I’m really excited about Saturday’s match in Wellington (which will be broadcast live on SuperSport at 9am). It’s the first time since 2012 that a North vs South Island contest will be played. Pre-professionalism, it used to be used as a semi trial match for the All Blacks. The country is really excited because you have the best of the best mixed in playing against each other. It’s the farmers in the south versus the city slickers from the north. If I look at the south’s backline, apart from Brad Weber and Jordie Barrett, it’s an all-Crusaders backline. It makes for a great looking backline and for the north, TJ Perenara has got the nod over Aaron Smith. It’s a big call because Smith has been fantastic for the Highlanders but they haven’t been performing as well as the Hurricanes. I think the combination of Perenara and Barrett will serve the north really well against the south’s 9-10 of Weber and Richie Mo’unga. There are so many great match-ups but the one everyone is talking about is between Barrett and Mo’unga. All Blacks coach Ian Foster has come out and said that this match will have bearing on who they go with at No.10 and it presents a great opportunity. But the reality is that even if Mo’unga keeps his position at first five for the All Blacks there is no way in the world that you won’t have Barrett in the starting XV and he will play No.15 regardless. There is so much talent in both backlines, and it’s very difficult for a selector to fit everyone in. It will be close but I think the north will take it. They have a nice balance between backs and forwards and I am a North Island boy so I have to support them.
Sport24 asked: Do you feel for the inactive South African players?
Mark Robinson: All I can say is thank God a number of South Africa’s international players are playing in the Gallagher Premiership because contact training only just resumed this week for the top local teams in South Africa. It’s not great from a South African rugby perspective and I just hope that South Africa recovers and gets its sporting structure back. The schools rugby and club rugby feeds into the other levels of play and if you lose six months you have almost got to go through a rebuilding phase of fitness and contact. New Zealand and Australia have had the benefit of building up playing momentum over the last few months, so they are ahead of South Africa at this stage. Fortunately for South Africa, there isn’t a World Cup next year because it might have been a different story if there was…
Sport24 asked: Your take on South Africa perhaps heading north?
Mark Robinson: I have been reading that South Africa is looking to potentially join the north. If I remove my Kiwi hat on this subject, in terms of time zones and travel it almost makes sense that South Africa sits in the northern hemisphere. It has always been a factor for South Africa travelling to Australasia for Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. However, for rugby purists and in terms of what is best for Australia and New Zealand, I believe you have to keep South Africa in the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby tournaments. I hope it (a move north) might only be a slight alternative route for South Africa to get back into the international scene and then it reverts back to what it was before. Australia are going through a rebuild and while they will always prove competitive as a national team, over the last 12 years the All Blacks have had the wood over the Wallabies. The Springboks have proved a tougher opponent and have put up a bit more of a fight. It goes back to the history and legacy of matches between South Africa and New Zealand. Kiwis measure themselves against South Africans at international level. That has always been the test you want to play and the level of that game is different to northern hemisphere teams that we play. South African rugby has got such talent everywhere and what I would like to see if they joined an expanded PRO16 competition, for argument’s sake, is that the talent is more evenly distributed and a smaller team could pull in some of the best players around. It would be sad if the Cheetahs, for example, are cut because you still want them to develop and be involved. It’s tough because you have to have the best playing but you also need to accommodate the smaller unions in the South African rugby landscape.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess South Africa’s scrumhalf options?
Mark Robinson: Faf de Klerk is definitely ahead in terms of his ability and is similar to Aaron Smith. Like Smith, De Klerk speeds up the game. He also reads the game so well and his kicking game is absolutely on point. The kicking game is such an important role for the number nines now. The halfbacks have such an influence on the game and they need to make sure that they make the correct decisions. They need to know when to pick the hole, run with the ball and then distribute. With the game being so defensively run these days, there is more emphasis on the No.9 to change the speed and shape of the game. It’s about moving out with the ball, which De Klerk and Herschel Jantjies do very well. And if you look at Cobus Reinach, he’s exactly the same. Reinach, even more so than De Klerk, runs such beautiful support lines and because he boasts the speed he is able to get into positons where he can offer extra support. There is plenty of pressure on a No.9 to tick all the boxes – tactical kicking, distributing, sniping and changing pace. At the moment, in my view, South Africa’s halfbacks tick all of those boxes. From an All Black perspective, Smith certainly ticks all of those boxes. Perenara ticks a few but there are still a few question marks over Weber. South Africa possesses real strength at nine, while New Zealand makes up for it with the skill and strength at No.10, which the Boks don’t have as much at the moment. If the All Blacks had a De Klerk or Reinach-type scrumhalf they would probably mix it up more at nine and 10. However, the men in black don’t, so it’s smart from them to play to their strengths with a No.10 who is an ultimate playmaker. The All Black nine is a straight distributor and kicker and they want him to move the ball out well, while the ten controls the tempo of the game.
Sport24 asked: Is the BLM movement now more political than civil?
Mark Robinson: It has 100% become more political. The South African players for Sale have been called out for not taking a knee, but neither did Billy Vunipola. Everyone has their own personal reasons. Vunipola didn’t take a knee because he didn’t agree with some of the violence that has been driven from the movement. He said it went against his Christian beliefs and that is a powerful statement. It’s got to the point now where it’s become overly political. These type of movements are the most impactful when the initiatives are at the start of the season or commemorating a loss of a life, but when you have to do it week-in and week-out, it loses it meaning and what it’s actually meant for. Taking a knee or not is personal and just because some players didn’t take a knee doesn’t mean they don’t stand in solidarity with black people. They may be doing other things to show their support. It should be a personal choice, but it has become too political and driven by the media. When players are attacked on social media, you have lost the purpose of what the movement stands for. It has got to the point where it has become highly politically motivated and has lost its impact.
Sport24 asked: How would you apply it to a South African context?
Mark Robinson: South Africa is deeply imbedded with racism and there is so much historical baggage in the country. It’s a shame that the South African sports minister (Nathi Mthethwa) had to seek clarification with SA Rugby but race relations run deep. The administrators and politicians need to look at themselves internally rather than at another opportunity to target white South African rugby players for not taking a knee. As a New Zealander, I think all of us have struggled with the idea of picking players according to skin colour rather than merit. The rest of the world has been lucky because they have never had to live with what has happened in South Africa and emphatically realise what that felt like, but I believe everyone should be afforded equal opportunity and the best players should play. The good thing for South Africa is that there are some amazing black players coming through. The black players in the World Cup-winning team are a credit to their country and captain Siya Kolisi underlines the fact that there is so much raw talent if given an opportunity. The only way that SA Rugby can pool that talent is if players are identified in the townships from a very young age. Young kids need to be playing rugby and watching their heroes like Kolisi on the big screen. They must see it as something they want to strive for. When the system brings that talent through at the top level you won’t even have to worry about the quota system because there will be a nice mix. It will be an organic process of selecting the best players as opposed to what the ministers or local government demand.