As a former professional player who made more than 200 appearances for Harlequins and also represented England, George Robson knows a thing or two about rugby at the elite level.
But the new Oxford recruit admits to being blown away by the environment he found at the Dark Blues as he prepares for a return to Twickenham. Still only 33, Robson turned down a fresh contract offer with London Irish in favour of a move into the ‘real world’, where he is now combining an Executive MBA at Oxford’s Business School with working at sports nutrition company MusclePharm.
With a young family, too, it all makes him a very busy man. Even so, the rugged second row has been revitalised by heading back into higher education. The sheer enjoyment he’s getting right now from his rugby comes across as he speaks.
“Every day I ask myself what I’m doing here,” said Robson said, “I’ve got a lot of spinning plates, but I’m trying to embrace and enjoy the experience. I’ve really bought into it at Oxford.
“I’m living here, I’ve got some really good friends, and Keble College have been great. There are guys who aren’t in the rugby team who I consider good friends, too. It’s great to have that.
“I can’t believe it all really. I’m waiting for the illusion to be shattered, although hopefully it won’t be.”
Robson will join the likes of Joe Roff, Anton Oliver and John Carter as former professional stars to feature for Oxford in the Varsity Match when he runs out at Twickenham. It means he will be a key man for his new side as they look to regain their recent ascendancy against the Light Blues.
After a record run of six wins in a row between 2010-15, it has been Cambridge who have won in the past two years. There is a job to be done by Robson
But how did a man who only left full-time rugby with London Irish in 2017, end up at Oxford? Part of that is down to a man from the enemy camp.
“I’ve got to thank a guy who was best man at my wedding – Charlie Amesbury – for the understanding that this sort of thing is possible,” explained Robson. “We went out for a few beers and talked when I visited him in Cambridge.
“I remember thinking I wouldn’t last 10 minutes in an environment like this and I never thought I’d come to Oxford. It was never something that was in my life-plan. I’ve done my rugby career now and the chance to now learn at the world’s number one university is something I’ve really enjoyed.
“The course is something I think will particularly help me in my career. I’m responsible for operations in Europe for MusclePharm. I’m learning so much and if you can name a demographic, it’s represented on my course.
“The opportunity to play rugby again is very, very special for me and it’s one of the purest forms I’ve played in, too. There is no money, I can guarantee you that!
“Everyone is here because they want to be. There were times in my rugby career when I was picking up a pay cheque, but not wanting to be there. I did have the option to continue playing, but I chose to retire because it was the right time for me.”
A Bromsgrove School and Old Swinford Hospital student, Robson played for England at age grade level and made his Harlequins debut in 2006. In his time at the English giants he won a Premiership title in 2012 and also claimed European Challenge Cup glory a season earlier.
He is the most-capped lock in Harlequins professional history with 203 appearances and his talent was shown in 2012 when he captained an England side to two victories over a South African Barbarians side on their tour of the Rainbow Nation. Increasingly wiser off the field, Robson is now imparting his rugby knowledge on the Oxford squad.
“If you’d asked me three weeks ago what Heteroscedasticity is, I’d have had no idea. I’d have just drawn a blank. Now I can tell you it’s something to do with a graph!” he quipped.
But today is more about the playing field than the classroom. So what about the serious business at the 137th Varsity Match?
“What both Oxford and Cambridge do share – even though they’re very different universities – is being at the elite level of education. We might hate each other, but there is a huge mutual respect between both sides,” he added.
“In the Varsity Match you can talk about the history and everything else, but it’s also sport and it will be about who executes better. I’m biased, but I think we have a very special group of players here, certainly when I compare it to the other squads I’ve been in.
“We’ve got really close with each other, it’s unique. There will be guys here who I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life and that’s happened over a three-month period.”
After nearly 10 years at Harlequins, Robson knows Twickenham like the back of his hand. He has both good and bad memories of the home of English rugby. Now he wants to lift silverware there.
“I hate to admit this, but as a professional sportsman the Varsity wasn’t ever on my radar. I knew it happened and I watched it last year because Charlie was involved,” he said.
“My first thought was this is a game of Test match intensity, but with guys who aren’t Test match size. Our approach will be about being physical, but also being smart at the right time.
“I won the Premiership at Twickenham in 2012, I played there for the first time when I was 15 and won then, too, for Stourbridge against Worcester. In my career I played at Wembley and the Stade de France, but there is something special about Twickenham.
“It’s an amazing place, but I’ve also got mad memories. I got red carded there after 45 seconds once, but it will always be a special place for me to play. At Twickenham the occasion can get the better of teams. We will focus on ourselves.
“Cambridge have pretty much the same team as last year, they’re very well coached, and they’re a brilliant side. We’re the underdogs. We’ve lost the last two matches, so we’ll go out there and give it everything.”
Tickets for the 30th Anniversary of Women’s Varsity Match and 137th Men’s Varsity Match at Twickenham on Thursday, 6 December, are still available from £25 adults, £15 students and £10 juniors. Click here to buy online