Andy Robinson: 'Believe me, I look at myself in the mirror every day and regret what happened to Mathew Tait'

Andy Robinson's stormy first year as England coach has brought some regrets but more positive lessons. In an exclusive interview, he tells Chris Hewett about the changes needed if the World Cup holders are to retain their crown
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Largely as a result of three early defeats - against Australia during last season's autumn international series and against Wales and France in the Six Nations Championship - he has faced the kind of flak Sir Clive Woodward avoided for years, despite the spectacular reverses that were his speciality in the first phase of his stewardship of the national side.

Robinson was criticised for his tactical substitutions, his selections and his bare-faced cheek in accompanying the British and Irish Lions to New Zealand rather than a second-string England side to Canada for the annual Churchill Cup jamboree. People demanded changes to his coaching staff, and when he declined to oblige, he was slaughtered for that too.

And now, he has landed slap bang in the middle of another confrontation between the Rugby Football Union, which pays his wages, and the Premiership clubs, who supply his players. Robinson wants more time with his Test squad, because he believes the pace and intensity of the international game have doubled and redoubled since England won the World Cup in 2003, to the extent that a successful defence of the title in 2007 will require nothing less than everything in terms of strategic planning, physical preparation and team-building. The clubs, understandably, want their big names playing for them. It is an eternal problem, but the coach has rather less than an eternity in which to solve it.

"Union is the ultimate team game," he said this week as he looked backwards and forwards, casting his eye over the upheavals of the last year and peering ahead towards the challenges he faces at Twickenham next month: the Wallabies first, the Samoans last and the All Blacks - the form side in the world, by a distance - as the prime cut of meat in a southern hemisphere sandwich.

"Far more than cricket, the most individual of team sports, and even football, where superior individual skills count for so much, rugby is about units and combinations, about people working together with complete trust and confidence in each other. It takes time to develop, and if you don't address it properly, you'll lose more than you win. In football, you can be played off the park and your goalkeeper can keep you in the game. You can't bullshit a result in rugby, particularly at élite level. You reap what you sow, simple as that."

Robinson is not short of faith in his own ability to run the England show and feels he is absolutely right to push for a more sympathetic agreement over player release with the major professional clubs. Indeed, he feels he is correct about lots of things: about the faith he continues to show in his much- criticised coaches, about the need for a restructured season, about committing himself to a faster, more captivating style of rugby than England delivered in scaling the high peaks of the sport two years ago. But what did he get wrong in his first season in the boss-man's chair? How about Mathew Tait, for starters?

"Believe me, I look at myself in the mirror every day and regret what happened to Mathew," he admitted, referring to the now notorious decision to pick Tait, an 18-year-old centre from Newcastle, against Wales in Cardiff in the opening round of the last Six Nations, and then drop him like a stone after substituting him midway through the second half. "The timing of his debut was wrong, it was my fault and it made me question my powers of selection. I shouldn't have put him in the position he found himself in. Still, he's been playing really well these last couple of weeks and that delights me. I've been very impressed and I have no doubt whatsoever that he has a big future ahead of him."

Which is more than can be said for the other centre who contributed to Robinson's discomfort, Henry Paul of Gloucester, whose brilliant future appears to be a long way behind him. The coach replaced Paul after 24 minutes of last November's contest with Australia, thereby costing himself a goal-kicking option - a fairly costly gamble, given that England went on to lose a tight game because they had no one to put the ball between the sticks. There is no hint of mea culpa on this issue, however. The coach defended himself then, and defends himself now.

"Henry Paul? There is a thin line between chaos and creativity and on that day, we simply made too many system errors in midfield and it affected the whole shape and balance of our game," he insisted. "We had a quality player on the bench in Will Greenwood, a player who could do many of the things Henry could do in terms of distribution. I stand by that decision. I always have.

"The Australia game was interesting, though, because it was a classic example of how a team can learn the wrong lessons in defeat. The following match was the one in Wales and as a result of what had happened at Twickenham, we stopped playing with the freedom we'd talked about throughout the time we'd spent together. Again, I blame myself to a large extent. I went for a tighter, more limited structure with very little width and it wasn't the best idea. People look back at that defeat and say it was all about the inside-centre position, about the lack of another kicking option in midfield. They're right to a degree, but there was more to it. The real problem was in the way we approached the game. I set the wrong tone.

"These things happen sometimes. I think now that after the World Cup, we didn't know how to enjoy being world champions. We played with closed minds, just carrying on where we'd left off instead of seizing the moment and embracing something new, something more free. As a result we lost a couple of matches we might easily have won. Now, we have no choice but to expand our horizons, because the international game has moved on. This is what the Premiership clubs must understand. If England are to be successful again, we need everyone on board with regards to the new rugby. The old ways won't do any more.

"In terms of pace and intensity, Premiership rugby isn't particularly close to Test level now. Take the Bath-Gloucester game last weekend. There was some terrific entertainment in the second half and I can see how the spectators were gripped by it, but the first half was pretty dire. And even in that second half, there were what amounted to time-outs before every set piece. That simply doesn't happen in today's international rugby, because the referees won't allow you to slow things down in that way. It is vital the clubs appreciate the importance of this and build elements into their games that raise the whole thing up a level."

Over the last few weeks, ever since the club-country issue kicked off with the row over the Lions' tourists 11-week rest period and the RFU's decision to withhold £135,000 in compensation payments from the sides who refused to play ball, Robinson has been in the thick of the political conflict.

He describes his relationship with the 12 top-flight directors of rugby as "not bad", which represents something of a decline, given his high standing in Premiership circles when he succeeded Woodward a little over a year ago. "Relationships are things that need to be worked at," he said, a trifle darkly.

"People seem to think that unless it's Test week, I have nothing to do. Come off it. My time is full, I can assure you. I get DVDs of every Premiership match and I watch them very closely. Even that has its frustrations, because there are some players I'd like to see playing more. I want to see Matt Stevens starting for Bath, because he's an important player for England. As we have a dearth of scrum-halves, I'd love to see Sale play Ben Foden, who is highly regarded by some very good judges. But I'm loath to criticise Sale, especially, because they have done a great deal to develop young English players and the Test calls really hurt them last season. I have less sympathy with teams who sign proven international players and then moan when they're picked for a Test match. That makes no sense to me at all.

"We have to understand the sacrifices that are inherent in the professional game. If a player wants to perform at international level, it involves a sacrifice by his family and a sacrifice by his club. That's obvious to me. So how do we make it easier on everyone involved, given that we all need each other? I think the answer is fairly simple, assuming the will is there to reach an agreement. We reorganise our season into blocks, so the players know where they stand. They're with the club for this chunk, they're with their country for that chunk. And for heaven's sake, let's not have these people playing the weekend before a Test. I could pick the best team with the best players and then have to rip the whole thing up when the injury calls come in on a Sunday night."

Is the World Cup defendable? "Yes," he replied, emphatically. "I'm convinced of it. We already know the games we must target, because only five, maybe six, teams can win the tournament. We're one of those teams. But I'm not one to shout the odds, to say we'll do this and that and give it the 'watch this space' routine. It's not who I am. In fact, I'd love to get away from all the sensationalism that surrounds rugby, away from the 'build 'em up and and knock 'em down' syndrome. If we could achieve that - and the press plays a big part in this - we'd then have some productive debates and proper exchanges of views. It's important to get some honesty into what we're doing."

Sensationalism, cheap headlines and gutter journalism, eh? You won't find any of that in The Independent. So here goes. How about the coaching staff, Andy? Now you are under all this heat to make some high-profile changes, what's the story?

"I feel under no pressure at all," he replied, serenely. "Phil Larder, Dave Alred ... these people are world-class and have a tremendous team ethic. What I do think is that we must change within ourselves in order to find new ways of enthusing and empowering the players. Change is at the very heart of what we need to be about between now and 2007.

"Since leaving Bath and joining the England set-up, I've changed and grown a huge amount. I used to be very one-dimensional, but I've learnt there are no absolutes in terms of what is right and what is wrong. There are many ways to get a performance out of a set of players, and the trick is to identify the one that is right for the moment. You never stop learning.

"So when people say I shouldn't have gone on the Lions tour, I laugh to myself. They're completely wrong-headed. My understanding of where England need to go from here is far clearer as a result of my experience over the last nine months, and a big part of that experience was working in a Lions environment against the best team in the world. You can't buy what you discover about yourself and others on a trip like that. I hope people will see the fruits of those discoveries next month."