IT’S early yet but a few results in England’s premiership have already raised an eyebrow or two; most notably the fact that Exeter Chiefs have lost two, home and away, while former giants of the game Leicester Tigers have won both their opening matches sparking hopes that the sleeping giant of English rugby is stretching and yawning.
But one result from another two time Champions Cup winner last weekend will have caused many jaws to drop in disbelief because Wasps cuffed the big spending Bristol Bears by an eye-watering 44-8.
The home team scored six tries in the process and they did so with the aid of a little known Scotland prop who, after starting out with Edinburgh, has spent the vast majority of his professional career in the less than glamorous surrounds of England’s Championship, first with Rotherham Titans and latterly the Doncaster Knights.
Robin “Bomb/Bomber” Hislop was well known to Wasps’ current boss Lee Blackett from his time as Rotherham’s coach a few years back. Now Blackett has handed the Scot an invaluable chance to prove himself in the big leagues and the 29-year-old Hislop has grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“Yea, it was great, as you said, I probably couldn’t have written the script any better myself,” he says of Wasps opening weekend in which he played a prominent role, latching onto Brad Shields in the second half to help propel the Wasps skipper over the line for one try while holding up his side of the scrum throughout.
“I kept in touch with Lee [Blackett] quite a lot,” he says of his summer signing. “When he got the head coach role [in February, 2020 following the departure of Dai Young] he was keen to get me in but they had a lot of boys on contract and what not. And after that loan spell at Saracens [he played three matches last season] I had interest from quite a few teams but Lee was first to move and I signed before Christmas last year.”
Despite his dearth of experience in the top flight, Hislop won the start for Wasps ahead of 6ft 4ins, 20 stone giant Ben Harris and England squad member Tom West. If the Borderer feels out of his depth playing at this august level he is doing a bang up job of hiding it from coach and colleagues alike.
“It was a new club so I felt I might have to bide my time but I felt like I was in with a shot as well,” he argues.
“There is some good competition at loosehead but I am not 21 any more and I came to this club to play rugby. I feel that, what with my injuries and stuff, I have had a few years out as a player so I have plenty of miles left on the clock.
“I didn’t think I was definitely going to start but I went well in pre-season and I feel like I am doing enough [to justify my place] so, yeah, I was just excited when I was told I was starting.”
In contrast to France’s ProD2 which is thriving and pays a very respectable average wage around the £56,000 mark (back in season 2017-18), England’s Championship is losing ground rapidly, which should be a concern for Twickenham.
When he started out with Rotherham, Hislop points out, all the Championship teams were full-time professionals. Now only about five clubs are, the rest including London Scottish are semi-pro and it seems only a matter of time before the five full-timers fall into line.
“There is a massive gulf now,” he is talking of the wage gap between the top two tiers but it could equally be the standard of rugby. “It’s quite sad what’s happened to the league, now only five teams are fully professional and the rest are part timers.
“It probably makes more sense from a business model and unless something happens that is probably the way it will all go because it’s a good wage to play part-time rugby but it’s a shocking wage to play full-time.”
The “Champs”, as he calls it with affection, has its fair share of big bruisers but the speed of the Engaland’s top flight is what sets it apart from the second division. If England’s Championship can’t hold onto the Premiership’s coat tails, and they very obviously can’t, Murrayfield should be asking themselves what chance do the Super6 clubs have of bridging the gap between the amateurs and the professional elite in Scotland?
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For all his time in the North of England, Hislop retains his Border twang and is a proud Scot. He was bitterly disappointed that the A game against England, in which he was starting, was Covid cancelled this summer.
He may be mad about rugby but the prop forward is smart enough to hedge his bets. He has his level three coaching certificate and helps out with the Sheffield Tigers in National Two while bemoaning the fact that coaching rugby is perhaps the only career with even less security than playing the game.
He is a part-time salesman for a company that makes head guards, he is interested in the booze trade and, if all else fails, Hislop can fall back on the family farm following the untimely death of his father four years ago.
It is impossible to talk about Hislop (Jnr) without mentioning dad Brian who passed the “Bomber” nickname down to son Robin and much else besides including that never say die attitude. Bomb (Snr) was a stalwart of Langholm Rugby for many years and he wasn’t far from a cap, playing in one Murrayfield trial despite flipping a tractor just days before.
“Bomber”, so called because he left a trail of destruction in his wake, passed away in the summer of 2017 after a fight with cancer, one of the few that he lost. One mutual friend caught him with a chemotherapy drip on rollers whilst working in the lambing shed and Robin adds that his much missed father was shearing sheep three weeks before he died.
“That’s who he was,” says Junior with undisguised admiration. “I always wanted to play rugby and I massively looked up to my dad,” says Robin, who now boasts a baby girl Ruby (one letter away from Rugby!) with long term partner Rachel, as if to prove that the circle of life continues to turn.
“He was mad into his rugby and that has definitely rubbed off on me,” says Robin about his late father. “Sadly he’s not here any more and I just want to make him feel proud.”
That job has surely been done, plenty of other challenges await the ambitious young “Bomber” Hislop.