Rugby Union: Robinson sticks to code of hard graft

Chris Hewett on the new coach from rugby union's old school at Bath
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The Independent Online
Andy Robinson's face was quite a picture: purple swellings on both cheekbones had merged with the livid bruising under each eye, highlighting the expression of brooding resentment etched across his features. "I do not," he pronounced, "like losing matches." And he paused theatrically for a second before delivering the pay-off line. "Ever."

The fact that Bath's second team - the "stiffs" or the "shags" in local parlance - had just given Otago, the crack Super-12 outfit from New Zealand, plenty to think about before going down 31-18 was not uppermost in the player-coach's mind. The only fact that mattered was the one still brightly illuminated on the scoreboard outside the clubhouse. The locals had been defeated, vanquished, subjugated. In Robbo's book, those are swearwords.

He will like it even less if his charges foul up against Leicester in this afternoon's delayed Pilkington Cup sixth-round tie at The Rec. In many ways, Bath's entire season hangs on the 80 minutes they turn in against their most implacable rivals; while victory would set them up for a late-season charge towards another league and cup double, the unthinkable would add fuel to the fires of controversy, both public and private, that have been smouldering away since the summer.

Robinson is only the third man in two decades to lay claim to the chief coach's title at Bath and his predecessors, Jack Rowell and Brian Ashton, were such hugely influential figures that the position has become almost dynastic. Another pressure in an already asphyxiating campaign.

But then, Bath have long drawn breath from the oxygen of pressure. Robinson has thrived on it since he arrived in 1986 as an ambitious 22-year-old open-side flanker, only to find his path into the first team blocked by Roger Spurrell - a former paratrooper from Cornwall whose buccaneering, derring-do style bordered on the psychotic.

"He was no pushover, that's for sure," smiles Robinson. "Standing next to Roger at the back of a line-out during a Monday night squad session was a far greater test of character than anything you were likely to come across on a Saturday afternoon. The whole atmosphere surrounding training was pretty savage and I know for a fact that in the early days, I was kicked more by my own clubmates than by the opposition.

"But my approach to coaching, to rugby in general, is borne of that experience. The hard graft, the real nitty-gritty, is done in training, to the extent that the game is almost the easy part. When a Bath team goes on to the pitch, it does so in the expectancy of victory, simply because of the work put in during the build-up.

"Preparation is all, simply because it takes away the fear. The only time I have ever been really apprehensive, almost scared, on a rugby pitch was when Bath took on Wigan at league at the end of last season. I have always loved a physical challenge but I hated the fact that I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. I didn't have any instincts to fall back on. It was like playing naked."

Robinson must have felt that nakedness when Ashton, frustrated by what he saw as a clumsy, ill-conceived management structure, walked out on Bath early last month. Suddenly, Robinson was flying solo at the controls of the most successful club side in the world. What was more, he was still widely perceived as one of the lads rather than a backroom sage. Is he still a player in coach's clothing?

"It's been a problem," he admits. "There is an obvious danger of falling between two stools if you're trying to play and coach in a pressure situation. When Brian left, my priority was to concentrate on getting my coaching absolutely right, but because of international demands on our squad, I wasn't able to take three or four weeks away from playing, as I had hoped.

"In fact, we thought long and hard about whether I should play in this match. I was burning to have another crack at the Tigers, but we decided against it. In a way, I'm happy not to be playing. I want to stay close to the squad, but it's also essential for a coach to take a step back. This gives me an opportunity to do that."

Today's game could well turn out to be a watershed for Robinson, the day he crosses the shadow line that divides the player from the coach. He has grown used to preparing teams for big occasions over the last three years - he guided Colston's School from Bristol to back-to-back Twickenham victories in the national Under-18 Cup and has also been closely involved with the successful England A set-up. But this is something else; fiercely tribal, loaded with historical baggage and deeply personal, Leicester are the ultimate opponents.

"It's been a real education to have been on the other side this week. I've taken it upon myself to talk the game through with most of the players one on one; some old-stagers, the Nigel Redmans and Jerry Guscotts, know exactly where they're coming from, but someone like Dan Lyle, very important in terms of the way we intend to approach the match but a new boy all the same, will not have been in anything like this before.

"But Bath has always been more about players than coaches and, as is usual before a really big game, the team has retreated into itself and generated its own peer pressure.

"I've had a few doors slammed in my face this week - 10 years in the first team and they treat me like an outsider - but I'm happy for that to happen. It means they're finding the right edge."