Appearing at Twickenham, touring Hong Kong, a league title in the bag, Leanne Robinson has achieved 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 was an ideal match for the 27-year-old and the instantly engaging character took off when he explained why she started the sport. .
“A friend of mine, a guy named Johnny, plays rugby and he always said to me when we met in college, ‘look at the size of your shoulders, you have to be in the scrum’,” she says.
“I had watched rugby on TV and enjoyed watching it but I was rowing at the time.
“When I decided to quit rowing because it was too much, I was looking for another sport. I saw the rugby club, I saw how much fun it was, the sport and also socials, and it was more manageable with college in. It sounded like fun, so I thought I’d just go for a trial session and loved it.
However, it is difficult to escape the comment of this friend.
It was like maybe that was a little rude, but Robinson laughed at the suggestion.
“Maybe. But I thought it was a compliment. I thought, ‘Let’s put it to good use.'”
That’s when she goes on to explain, with great insight, why rugby union has such appeal.
“In netball there is a certain type of body, and in rowing there is a certain type of body, whereas in rugby what I liked was that I remember that first training session and people were all different shapes and sizes.
“There was no right or wrong. We need shorter, stockier players. We need tall, slender players. We need the fastest. We need the strongest.
“No matter who you are and no matter how tall you are, there is a place on a rugby pitch for you.
“I think about how inclusive people were and how welcoming and friendly they were, but also that immediate acceptance.
“Maybe you can’t catch or pass a rugby ball, but that’s okay, this sport is still for you, and it was really good.”
By the way, catching and passing wasn’t something Robinson had a problem with.
Describing itself as “super academic” and “super nerdy” at school, the sport had provided a way to get your head off the books and release some energy.
It had started with jiu jitsu, but there was a slight problem.
“I got pulled from the kids jiu jitsu facility because I was so big I was hurting other kids. That sounds so bad,” Robinson says.
“They apologized and apparently said to my mom and dad, ‘Do you mind if we move Leanne to the adult setup because she’s hurting the kids?’.”
Given the enthusiasm and dedication with which Robinson speaks, you can imagine how this is applied in competition.
Yet he ended up with a black belt at the age of 16. At the same time, he was playing netball for the county, hence the hand/eye coordination.
It was the sport of choice to go to Oxford University to study the humanities, but Robinson missed tryouts during freshman week which meant being on the back foot, so she decided to try something else, which was rowing.
She started at Keble College, but struggled to balance commitment with her studies. As third year approached, she considered trying out 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 [rugby] was an immediate draw as long as it wasn’t rowing,” jokes Robinson, who is from Chatteris.
But it extends further.
“Being outside, of course. Be physical. If you’ve had a junk day and can just go and break something, that’s so good. I don’t know if it’s a little scary, but it really feels 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 rugby was a game of mistakes and that appealed to me a lot too.
“He said you just have to keep picking yourself up. It’s huge.
“It seems a bit deep, but with life things happen, you make mistakes and you fall but you get back up.
“Always there’s someone on the rugby pitch and they help you up, you see them go for a tackle and even if you’re completely knackered and you really don’t want to go, you know you’re gotta go out there and ruck them and support them.
“I loved it straight away. You guys are a team.
Robinson found a place in the second row – although that was later to change for crosses from Shelford – and helped write rugby history.
She was part of the Oxford team that played the first women’s university game at Twickenham, although it ended in a 52-0 victory for Cambridge.
However, a second Blue was won a year later as Oxford triumphed 3-0.
Upon graduation, his partner got a job at Cambridge and that paved the way for Davey Field.
‘Shelford is like my family,’ says Robinson
“When I joined Shelford on and off in that first year, there was an eight-woman team – well, that’s not a team.
“The amount I’ve seen him grow, I’m so proud of this club. I’m proud of the women who play there, and really proud of the club to the extent that they’ve supported the women’s team.
What’s also interesting about Robinson is that she’s DC in Cambridgeshire Constabulary, and that opened up her own rugby opportunities.
Shelford player Lesley Sonnen is also in the force and had recommended the newcomer to attend UK police rugby trials.
However, things didn’t quite go as planned. The idea was for the players to take two days off, the first for training and the second for the game. It’s just that Robinson didn’t imagine being selected to face the RAF.
“I only booked a day off because I was so sure there was no way I would be chosen that I thought I would just go to training to see what was atmosphere,” she explains.
“I was then chosen, and they said can you play the next day, but I said no, I’m at work.”
A lesson learned, Robinson continued to thrive with the British police.
This led to traveling to Hong Kong for the International Police Rugby Championship to face their New Zealand and Australian counterparts.
“It improved my game so much,” says Robinson of playing for British police.
“They, as a team but also the opposition we face – fire, navy, RAF, army – are so physical.
“The physical level is a step, then another step above, and that for me was brilliant. I came on as a bit vulgar second tier, and my game definitely improved playing with them.
“But it was also great – not just in a rugby sense – to meet other women who are police, who are in different forces with the same issues and who can bond over something.”
Robinson is now ready to take a step back. She’s taking a sabbatical from the police to live in New Zealand for a year and has been able to reflect on what’s different since she started acting.
“I think the biggest change is just more women playing,” Robinson says.
“When I joined Shelford there were eight or nine women who showed up regularly for training and now we have two fully functional teams. You can play on the same day and both teams have plenty of substitutes, it’s crazy !”
It all helped ensure Robinson was able to sign on a high, for now, as Shelford Women earned title-winning promotion to NC1 East this season. A good indication that the club is getting better and better.