Rugby Union: Bliss for the family Robinson

David Llewellyn talks to the Bath coach trying to recreate the spirit of the golden days
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The Independent Online
The Family is functioning again. That is ominous news for the rest of the rugby fraternity. He is no Godfather, but when the Bath coach Andy Robinson announces: "We are still a family," you can be assured that they have succeeded in putting all their trials and tribulations of the last year or so well behind them.

The fly-on-wall has been swatted away, the webs of intrigue and innuendo have been brushed off and the setbacks on the field are now mere memories. They are still off the pace in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, but they cannot be written off, and they have done what no other English side managed, they have reached the semi-finals of the Heineken European Cup.

No wonder Robinson was relaxed as he reflected on the goings-on of a turbulent year at the helm. "The documentary The Rugby Club did not get to us. And it showed that at least we learn from our mistakes. It wasn't nice. And what happened to John Hall was unpleasant, but that is part of professionalism. In some respects there is no room for sentiment. But we are still a family at Bath, just as we were under Jack Rowell. But you always get losses in families."

Losses on the field have been something of a concern but Robinson is in the middle of something he sees as vital, not just for Bath but for England - player development. No one can accuse of him of not producing the goods either. The 20-year-old Matt Perry played a key part in all four of England's demanding Tests against Southern Hemisphere opposition. The hooker Andy Long, another 20-year-old, started the match against Australia, although he was dropped. But the evidence of up-and-coming talent is there.

Robinson is a committed patriot, who sees himself and other club coaches as working for a common cause. He is concerned about the dearth of promising youngsters in certain positions but he sees hope ahead. "I am a passionate Englishman," says the flanker who won eight caps for his country. "There are odd positions where we are a bit thin on the ground internationally. But we are still trying to get the right development programme in place. We have only been professional for two years and we need to start it at 16 in the schools. Clive Woodward has to remember that it is a long process. But my aim is to develop the players for the benefit of Bath, then the success that we enjoy can benefit England as well."

But as he points out, it cuts two ways. "The national side doing well is always good for our development. It lifts everyone because we are all passionate about England being successful. That to me is hugely important. For example this week we've had the Scots and English lads coming back. The players are all tired, but the English lads are relaxed and happy following the draw with New Zealand, whereas the Scots are a bit down, because of what happened against South Africa."

And while not wishing to court controversy, the articulate Robinson, a former schoolteacher, has firm views on two contentious issues dogging the English scene at the moment - overseas players and the question of introducing regional sides in Europe to replace the clubs.

Taking the latter first. "England doesn't need an intermediate tier between club and country," asserts Robinson. "I think clubs are the way forward. We are producing England players of quality. Leicester are doing the same, the players are coming through and will continue to. I think the professional attitudes of the old amateur players are rubbing off on the new breed of professional. At Leicester the likes of Deano [Dean Richards], Wellsy [John Wells] are playing in the Second XV and helping bring on the youngsters."

As for imports, Robinson says: "We need to limit the number of foreign players coming over, but having overseas players is no bad thing. Look at Richard Hill and Tony Diprose: who better to learn off at Saracens than Francois Pienaar, the World Cup winning captain? They have him as a mentor-cum-coach."

And of course European rugby will also contribute hugely to player development. But Robinson wants more. "The structured season has to become more global, bring in the southern hemisphere as well as the rest of the northern hemisphere," he says. "The frustrating thing about our season so far is that it has been all over the place. We've gone from league, to European Cup, to internationals and back to League, then to Europe again."

It is Europe which has Robinson's attention for the next few days as he prepares for Saturday's semi-final against Pau. He knows what to expect. "We have videos of Pau," says Robinson. "They have power and pace. They have that Gallic flair in the backs and are a well-organised team." Naturally he will be studying those videos this week with the Bath squad. It is called "family entertainment".

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