Athletics: Big Ben strikes to win the New Year sprint

Musselburgh winner Ben Robbins of the Sprint final. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Musselburgh winner Ben Robbins of the Sprint final. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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BIG BEN struck and suddenly a whole new sporting world has opened up for a talented 16-year-old George Watson’s schoolboy, who scooped the Eric Liddell Memorial Trophy and gold medal plus a cool £4000 for winning the 144th handicap New Year sprint in front of big crowd of 3500 at Musselburgh Racecourse yesterday.

However, which way will Ben Robbins and his wily coach, Dave Goodall, turn and which challenge will entice them most?

Robbins, a 400 metres specialist and Edinburgh Athletic Club member, could follow the example of the legendary Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic 400m gold medallist who represented Scotland at both athletics and rugby. However, as Robbins himself points out, that is much more difficult, perhaps impossible to do in the modern era.

Or he might find inspiration in the unique double of another much-talked about athletics legend, Tranent’s George McNeill, the only man to win both the Scottish Professional New Year Sprint and the Australian Professional Stawell Easter Gift.

I can reveal that Robbins is wasting no time in following the sun as he hopes to head Down Under this Easter to have his first taste of Stawell, which, as McNeill knows well from the number of times he tried, is anything but a “gift”, with no favours given to any visitors, be they youngsters or famous winners from Scotland – or both.

In fact Robbins’ biggest problem might be getting an entry as the race is a short-limit one with handicaps of no more than 12 metres.

Robbins intends to use his winnings to finance the trip for himself and coach Goodall, plus sponsorship from the Livingston-based publishing group Witherby for whom Ben’s mother Maureen (nee O’Neill), herself a former Edinburgh AC sprinter, is employed.

Robbins, who scored two tries in the recent Brewin Dolphin Scottish Schools Cup final but has put his age-group international rugby career on hold for a year to concentrate on the track, certainly reaped an immediate reward when he slaughtered his rivals alongside the National Hunt Meeting yesterday.

In doing so he also cruelly dashed the hopes of the 26-year-old Gemma Nicol (Dunfermline) that she might at last become the first female winner of the historic professional handicap. Nicol, however, was far from dismayed as her form suggests a fine season to come and her prize money of £450 was a nice bonus towards paying for the new house which she has bought in anticipation of her marriage to fiancé Ryan Sharp, probably in 2014.

After the yesterday morning cross-ties, the betting was finely balanced between the two who had dominated the heats on Monday and maintained their form yesterday.

Robbins was the 4-6 favourite by the time he went on to his blocks for only the second time ever on a grass track – he disdained to use them in his heat – with Nicol, a six-times finalist and a former runner-up, at even money.

Robbins, who has a best time of 49.11 seconds and is carefully coached by Goodall, covered the 110m on the gradually drying grass in 12.14 into a fresh, though unmeasured wind from his start of 7.5m.

To achieve his target for 2013 of selection for the British team for the World Youth Championships in Ukraine in July he needs to run 48.0 secs, a tough, though certainly not unreasonable task on the much faster tartan tracks where his impressive strength will be an asset.

A surprise 5-1 runner-up was his teenage clubmate, the Charlie Affleck-coached Portobello High schoolboy Keiran Reilly in 12.29, with Nicol (16.5m) third in 12.32.

Nicol had always insisted she was doing no special preparation for the race and indeed should be applauded for competing, for only two weekends previously the two times Commonwealth Games 400m competitor had put in a demanding endurance training session of eight x 500 metres with a ten-minute recovery which bodes well for her chances of making the team for a third time for Glasgow 2014.

“I still see my eventual future in rugby,” said Robbins, who does not believe it will be possible to do both sports as Liddell once did so famously.

He agreed however that his decision to take a year out from the Scotland youth squad had already paid dividend.

“I guess it’s paid off,” he said.

However, his coach was quick to insist on wider ambitions. “It’s not about the money,” insisted coach Goodall.“It’s just about winning the event and being a part of athletics history. He’s been concentrating on his 400 metres training and only started speeding up in the last four weeks; in fact he did no training on the grass and only used blocks for the first time on the grass for the cross-tie (which he won in 12.34).

“When I saw he’d been allocated a start of 7.5 metres I just thought ‘that’s a hell of a good mark’.”