Leanne Robinson finds a home from home on the rugby pitch at Shelford and beyond
Appearing at Twickenham, going on tour to Hong Kong, a league title in the bag, Leanne Robinson has achieved quite a lot since taking up rugby union.
The decision to pick up a rugby ball was more of an ‘escape route’ from rowing, but it has been an ideal match for the 27-year-old and the instantly engaging character got in full flight when discussing why she took up the sport.
“One of my friends, a guy called Johnny, plays rugby and he had always said to me when we first met at uni, ‘look at the size of your shoulders, you need to be in the scrum’,” she says.
“I had watched rugby on telly and enjoyed watching it but I was rowing at that time.
“When I decided to give up rowing because it was just way too much, I was looking for another sport. I saw the rugby club, saw how much fun it looked, the sport and also the socials, and it was more manageable with uni. It looked like fun so I thought I would just go along for a taster session and loved it.”
It is hard to get away from that friend’s comment though.
It felt like it may have been a bit rude, but Robinson laughs at that suggestion.
“Maybe. But I thought it was a compliment. I thought, ‘Let’s put this to good use’.”
It is then that she goes on to explain, with great insight, why rugby union has such a broad appeal.
“In netball there is a certain body type, and in rowing there is a certain body type, whereas in rugby what I loved was that I remember that first training session and people were all different shapes and sizes.
“There was no right or wrong. We need the shorter, stockier players. We need the tall, lanky players. We need the fast ones. We need the strong ones.
“Regardless of who you are and what size you are there is a space on a rugby pitch for you.
“I think how inclusive people were and how welcoming and friendly, but also that immediate acceptance.
“Maybe you can’t catch or pass a rugby ball but that is OK, this sport is still for you, and that was really nice.”
Catching and passing was not something that Robinson had an issue with, by the way.
Describing herself as “super academic” and “super nerdy” at school, sport had provided a way to take the head out of the books and release some energy.
It had started out with jiu jitsu, but there was a slight problem.
“I got moved out of the children’s set-up of jiu jitsu because I was so big I was hurting other kids. It sounds so bad,” says Robinson.
“They said sorry, and apparently said to my mum and dad, ‘Do you mind if we move Leanne to the adults’ set-up because she is hurting the kids?’.”
Given the enthusiasm and dedication with which Robinson speaks, you can imagine how that is applied in competition.
Still, it ended up with a black belt by the age of 16. Going alongside that was playing netball for the county, hence the hand/eye coordination.
It was the sport of choice heading to Oxford University to study human sciences, but Robinson missed the trials during freshers’ week which meant being on the back foot, and so she decided to try something else, which was rowing.
She started at Keble College, but had been struggling to balance the commitment with her studies. Heading into the third year, she pondered trialling for the Dark Blues of Oxford University Boat Club for the Boat Race, but decided to put academia first and get a sporting fix elsewhere.
“I would say it [rugby] was an instant appeal in that it wasn’t rowing,” jokes Robinson, who is from Chatteris.
But she expands further.
“Being outside, definitely. Being physical. If you’ve had a rubbish day and you can just go and smash something, it feels so good. I don’t know if that sounds a bit scary, but it does feel really good!
“Having to work as a team. Things go wrong all the time in rugby. One of my first coaches at Oxford was a guy called Gary Street and he always said that rugby is a game of mistakes and that really drew me as well.
“He said you just have to keep picking yourself back up. That is huge.
“It sounds a bit deep, but with life stuff happens, you make mistakes and you fall down but you get back up.
“Always, there is someone on the rugby pitch and they are helping you up, you see them going for a tackle and even if you’re absolutely knackered and you really don’t want to go for that, you know you have to go and ruck them and support them.
“I just loved that straight away. You’re a team.”
Robinson found a place in the second row – although that was to later change to the centres at Shelford – and helped make rugby history.
She was part of the Oxford team that played in the first Women’s Varsity Match at Twickenham, although it ended in a 52-0 win for Cambridge.
However, a second Blue was earned a year later as Oxford triumphed 3-0.
On completion of her studies, her partner got a job in Cambridge and that paved the way to the Davey Field.
“Shelford is like my family,” says Robinson
“When I joined Shelford on and off in that first year, there was a team of eight women – well, it’s not a team.
“The amount that I have seen it grow, I’m so proud of that club. I’m proud of the women that play there, and really proud of the club in how much they have supported the women’s team.”
What is also interesting about Robinson is that she is a DC in Cambridgeshire Police, and that has opened up its own rugby opportunities.
Fellow Shelford player Lesley Sonnen is also in the police, and had recommended that the newcomer attend the British Police rugby trials.
However, things did not go quite to plan. The idea was that players took two days off, the first for training and the second day for the game. It is just that Robinson did not imagine getting selected to face the RAF.
“I only booked one day off work because I was so sure that there was no way I would be picked that I thought I would just go to training to see what the vibe was,” she explains.
“I then got picked, and they said can you play the next day, but I said no, I’m at work.”
Lesson learned, Robinson has gone on to thrive with the British Police.
It has led to heading to Hong Kong for the Police International Rugby Championship to face their New Zealand and Australia counterparts.
“It has upped my game so much,” says Robinson of playing for the British Police.
“They, as a team but also the opposition we face – fire, navy, RAF, Army – are so physical.
“The level of physicality is a step and then another step above, and that for me has been brilliant. I turned up as a bit of a weedy second row, and my game has definitely improved by playing with them.
“But it’s also been great – not just in a rugby sense – to meet other women who are police officers, who are in different forces having the same issues and being able to bond over something.”
Robinson is now set to take a step back. She is having a sabbatical from the police to live in New Zealand for a year and has been able to reflect on what is different from when she first took up the game.
“I think the biggest change is just more women playing,” says Robinson.
“When I joined Shelford there were eight or nine women that turned up regularly to training and now we have two fully functioning teams. We can play on the same day and both teams have plenty of subs – that’s insane!”
It has all helped to make sure that Robinson was able to sign off on a high, for now, as Shelford Women earned a title-winning promotion in NC1 East this season. A great indication of the club going from strength to strength.