Australian battler was well ahead of his time
Skintight rugby jerseys are the norm now but when the All Blacks first wore them in 2003 it was big news. But, as Steve Kilgallon discovers, how new was the idea, and whose idea was it?
The Sunday Star-Times declares: "The All Blacks will unveil a new jersey . . . skin tight and made from a revolutionary fabric."
Replacing the familiar baggy cotton affair, this new jersey would be, reckoned adidas's Craig Lawson, at "the leading edge of technology and innovation . . . I don't think anyone could disagree with our claims".
For adidas, it was the culmination of three years' scientific experimentation, tweaking the right mix of polyester and elastane to produce the lightest, toughest, tightest jersey possible. Eighty staff now toil at their German headquarters on such sporting innovations. "Some of the technical drawings for footwear we see are like diagrams for a house or a boat," says Simon Cartwright, adidas vice-president of rugby, Olympics and football.
Barry Robinson, at the age of 33, has realised he will never work again. Four years earlier, he had wrecked his knee playing footy. In hospital, he contracted gangrene, golden staph, pneumonia and a blood disorder. They also discovered a historic neck-break and a form of genetic arthritis. Selling second-hand cars on the Gold Coast was no longer an option. He was lucky to keep his leg; one doctor told him he'd be lucky to see the turn of the century. "I was," he declares, "as crook as Rookwood [Sydney's biggest cemetery]." He felt lost; had always worked hard. So he decided to become an inventor. And his first big idea? The skintight rugby jersey.
Dunedin tinsmith John Eustace invents the airtight resealable lid, still used on paint and food tins. It ensures his place alongside the New Zealand creators of the electric fence, bungy jumping and the outboard motor but he doesn't reap the rewards. A British company sends a representative to New Zealand, authorised to offer thousands of pounds for the rights to this resealable lid. When they got here they found Eustace had neglected to patent it, and they could take his idea for free.
Barry Robinson, now 53, these days lives alone in the Sydney commuter town of Woy Woy, where his failing health means he rarely leaves his home. "Wouldn't you say," he asks, "that this is an Aussie battler story? You know, a bloke with nothing left to do but chase his dreams, his goals, his ideas?"
Robinson is excited to tell his story. He hasn't been in the newspapers since 1998, when he was big in the Fairfield Champion and Central Coast Express Advocate. Bizarrely, his re-emergence comes thanks to an Auckland University professor of fine art, Jonathon Mane-Wheoki, who felt that while Robinson might never reap the riches his invention deserved, he should at least get the credit.
While Robinson is an Australian, New Zealand patent lawyer Ceri Wells says, wearily, that his tale is "very common". It makes it no less sad.
"I usually say to my clients, your first invention was the good one - meaning that they have a good idea and only realise it after everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and they make nothing out of it," says Wells, a partner in Hamilton firm Wells and James Patent Law.
He believes it's particularly common in New Zealand to invent something but fail to capitalise. This he ascribes to a spirit of invention but also of co-operation, and more importantly, of disregarding the rest of the world. Many companies, he says, if they do register a patent, will do it only in New Zealand - forgetting the lucrative Chinese and North American markets. "It's tragic."
This is indeed an Aussie battler story, but there is no happy ending. While there were millions to be made from revolutionising the rugby jersey, Robinson certainly didn't get any of it.
ALWAYS AN INVENTOR
HE WAS always an inventor, Robinson thinks, even when he was a binman, a fresh pasta salesman, a stripper, a jobbing actor, a builder's labourer.
He grew up with ideas. He remembers a mate of his dad devising a combined torch-fishing rod for night fishing on unlit boats. His first invention, of sorts, came at the age of seven. An older brother liked wearing those dayglo mesh T-shirts. Eager to copy, Robinson made his own from an onion sack. "I was a bit of an underachiever . . . a bit of a dreamer," he says. "All my report cards said 'Barry does well when he is interested'." And he was interested in making stuff.
Robinson was also, he reckons, a fair footballer, although in our minds, don't we all get better the older we get? He played for the local club in the hard-scrabble western Sydney suburb of Fairfield. Football caused his knee injury and triggered his health problems. Living on a mere $290 a week, he found it easier to call himself the director of Robinson's Creative Concepts than a 29-year-old disability pensioner. "I treated my disability pension as a small, very small retainer . . . a man needs some dignity in his life. And work gives that to us."
There was an idea for a neoprene strap to hold your football boots on that some people liked, but his best invention was an idea he'd dreamed up years earlier, but done nothing about - modernising the rugby jersey.
Jerseys then were still made of loose-fitting cotton, although polyester was about to hit the market. Cotton didn't wick sweat, it got hot in the sun and heavy in the rain. And if you were a little guy like Robinson, you got sick of players grabbing your jersey to make a tackle. Inspired by road cyclists' vests, Robinson picked up a rulebook, which read: "the jersey must be of distinctive colour or pattern preferably numbered with shorts, socks or stockings". That was it. A skintight football jersey made of modern material was legal and made sense: it would be more comfortable, eliminate the grab tackle, encourage textbook tackling, open up the game and perhaps even be easier to sell for the marketers.
At first, he looked at wool. Then he turned to the new CoolMax synthetic fabric. But the original prototype was made from neither. Robinson went to a dive shop in Parramatta and bought a lightweight tropical wetsuit, on discount because it was torn. He cut off the sleeves and legs, his sister stitched on a few logos to lend it authenticity, and began showing it to anyone who would listen.
Robinson did trademark the name "Jersey2000" (partly Olympics-inspired and partly, it seems, a morbid reference to his expected lifespan) but said he had difficulty patenting the jersey itself. He figured the best way to protect his invention was to become publicly associated with it, so he chased testimonials and media coverage. This may have been one of his mistakes.
Once you publicly disclose your great idea, it's too late, says Wells. The urban myth that writing down your idea and mailing it to yourself to get proof-of-date is also false. "It happens all the time," he says. "Typically someone develops a nice little tool to use in the cowshed, someone else asks them to make them one, they go to Fieldays and sell 30 or 40 and make a really good profit and come racing in to me and say I've got this idea, it's going gangbusters, I need a patent." Oops.
Robinson took Jersey2000 to the head of the players' union, Peter Moscatt, who was initially encouraging, faxing Robinson to say how impressed he was; then he stopped taking his calls. He visited league dignitaries and the AGMs of local junior competitions. Eventually, desperate, he made a presentation to the New South Wales Rugby League. Robinson wore a shirt and tie. He persuaded an audience member to don a traditional jersey. Then he stripped down to reveal his own Jersey2000 underneath and over-enthusiastically demonstrated the differences, tearing the other guy's dress shirt. The response? "Pretty humdrum," he says. But Rod Gorman, chief executive of Souths Juniors, the biggest league club in Sydney, did agreed to kit out his under-12, 13 and 14 rep squads with Robinson's shirt.
Robinson's nephew Adam Griffiths was due to be first to wear the jersey, during his junior club's grand final in 1994, with Channel Nine cameras on hand to record it. Just before kickoff, his coach told him he could not wear the jersey.
Another nephew, Luke, raised funds to buy a set of Jersey2000s. They arrived for the last game of the 1996 regular season. His St Andrews under-14 team won the game and the premiership. Then the opposition complained and the Western Suburbs junior league ruled a replay. St Andrew's team refused and forfeited the title; the league later rewrote the rules to ban tight-fit jerseys.
'SPACE-AGE FOOTY SHIRT'
"Barry was treated badly," says Luke's dad, Greg, a university lecturer. "He had a great idea that that has proven to be correct. If he was treated fairly and promptly he could have made some money."
In the end, two under-15 sides wore the new jersey for a game reported in the Daily Telegraph, which quoted a development officer, Steve Palin, saying the jumpers could "have an amazing effect on the game". Robinson was steadily gaining attention: he was regularly on television shows, showing off what his local paper, the Fairfield Champion, called the "space-age footy shirt".
The breakthrough was gaining a testimonial in 1997 from Sydney Roosters captain Sean Garlick, who wore the jersey during a pre- season game and was impressed. He remembers it immediately. "He was ahead of his time. Everyone thought he was nuts. Now look at the jumpers," he says. When he wore the jersey, "everyone thought I was a kook . . . but it was fantastic. It was a stinking hot day but it kept you cool and it was like running around naked - they couldn't grab you."
He tried to sell his club management on the idea. "They just scoffed at me. I tried for him - completely for selfish reasons because it was what I wanted to wear."
Robinson has kept Garlick's typewritten testimonial among a sheaf of papers to prove he isn't a fantasist. There are newspaper clippings (Daily Telegraph, April 5, 1998: "space-age, body-hugging jerseys . . . If nothing else, the tightness of the jumpers should provide an extra incentive for bulky forwards to keep up those dreaded off-season fitness regimes"), and a note from Australian Institute of Sport scientist Dr Dick Telford, who confirms its authenticity to the Star-Times.
But by the time Garlick wore the shirt, Robinson's energy was running low. He mutters about blackbans, backhanders and bullshit. "People think you're gonna be a millionaire overnight," he says. "It doesn't work that way."
By the end of 1998, Robinson had had enough. His health was worsening and he had no money. One major manufacturer had dismissed his ideas as too expensive, another said they wouldn't sell to fans, then wanted to sue him for using the colours of teams in his prototypes.
"I was flabbergasted . . . why the hell was this so hard? I just got disheartened. I couldn't keep it up and I felt ashamed."
At least, he said, he had seen a team wear and win in his Jersey2000."When it was up against the traditional jersey, it was clearly better."
ADIDAS COMES ALONG
Five years later, adidas unveiled its revolutionary jersey. It was unpopular - the early versions tore easily and the purists struggled with the aesthetics. Tony Smith of The Press asked: "Is clingfilm kit the look we want for rugby? England's jerseys [a similar, dry-fit, design from rival Nike] look like a job lot of straitjackets from a Victorian lunatic asylum. I swear they do up from the back." Sunday News predicted former All Blacks would "cringe" at jerseys more suited "to the strippers at a ManPower revue".
But the revolution continued. Polyester allowed manufacturers to tinker; adidas had first incorporated breathable mesh panels, not stitched, but part of one seamless garment, and added elastane in 2001. Jerseys got tighter and lighter until adidas produced what they claimed was the word's lightest shirt, involving lycra, for the 2011 All Blacks.
"So for 90-odd years, nothing had changed, the jersey was sacrosanct," Robinson says. "And then I came along. I know I laid the groundwork."
These days, adidas scientists are working on a knitted football boot promoted by Luis Suarez and the Boost running shoe, using a new lightweight foam, which is claimed to shave a minute from an elite runner's marathon time. "We want athletes to be faster, stronger, cooler, so we look at ways to make that happen,"says Cartwright. There is precision involved: they believe they have calculated the exact tightness required in a sprinter's bodysuit to stop their muscles vibrating sideways, concentrating the energy force in going forward.
Such innovations take between two and five years to emerge, and Wells says this slow, expensive corporate approach to invention is what happens nowadays. When someone like Robinson has a good idea, going it alone is almost impossible. "I have seen it happen, but the technology needs to be startling and the inventor needs to have balls of steel," says Wells. "It requires a lot of tenacity."
Usually, during the lengthy and expensive patenting process, these garden-shed inventors try to attract corporate backing.
This can be hard. Cartwright admits they aren't particularly interested in these lone operators. In fact, they are wary of them, shy of litigation and usually refuse unsolicited pitches. "If we actually talk to them, then it starts being 'well, you talked to me in 1995 and you brought that to market in 2004' so to protect ourselves we steer well clear," Cartwright says.
It's understandable given a US case where an inventor pitched a new icecream flavour to McDonald's; one branch rejected it while another was secretly working on the same idea. He won a payout.
Often, says Cartwright, interactions with guys like Robinson work in reverse: adidas develops an idea, does a patent search, sees that somebody has already patented it, and pays them "rather well" to stop work.
But, as you might expect, the simple story is that adidas simply hasn't heard of Barry Robinson.
'AHEAD OF HIS TIME'
Steve Palin, who back in 1997 predicted Robinson's jerseys would be revolutionary, still believes Robinson "was ahead of his time - I don't know why it didn't take off. I think people were just not quite ready", " says the rugby league development officer. "There's some combination between innovation and timing, and these two things did not come together for Barry."
Garlick, who played 160 first-grade games before establishing his own pie company, says the same. "He was just way ahead of his time - about eight years ahead. I was saddened for him because it was a great idea."
Mane-Wheoki became Robinson's unlikely but consistent penpal for the past three years, after chancing on his profile on an acting website and becoming intrigued. Once he knew the full story, he resolved to help him gain credit for his work. "To me, Barry Robinson looks increasingly like one of the unsung heroes of Australian sport," he says. "As a designer he's a person with a strikingly original and innovative creative intelligence and this great little Aussie battler deserves to be remembered, honoured, and written into sporting history."
What would Robinson like? "All I want is recognition. A bloke has got to be known for something in life. I don't want to be known as a bulls*** artist."
In the meantime, his old jerseys are getting some use. He wears them as pyjamas.
He chirps up: "Mate, you can call them BodyJams, get them made up in all the right colours. And when you're rolling around in bed at night like a crocodile, they don't get all ruffled up."
Sunday Star Times