The moment Andy Robinson appeared on the Memorial Ground pitch after his appointment as Bristol's director of rugby, a loudmouthed terrace comedian shouted “offside” at the top of his voice. It was a wisecrack that transported Robinson in two directions simultaneously: backwards to his playing days with Bath, when his ability to operate at the very limit of legality made him one of the most effective flankers in the sport; and forwards into an inevitable debate with those locals who see his decision to cross the great West Country divide as a step too far.
"I couldn't help laughing," he says, "although the comment was inaccurate. In all the years I played, I was never offside." This is almost as good a joke as the original and judging by the expression on his face – half serious, half mischievous - he knows it. "I'm happy to enter into the spirit of the old Bath-Bristol thing," he continues. "I relish all the banter and the joshing. And if there really are some people out there who feel genuinely annoyed by the fact that I'm coaching their club – and I suppose there might be a few of them – then I'm OK with that too. What I can say to them is that I intend to throw everything at this job, all my energy, all my passion and emotion."
Robinson's coaching career has been something of a passion play from the start: there are few individuals who live and breathe the game with anything like the same intensity. Yet in the six and a half years since he was railroaded out of the England job after a run of eight defeats in nine matches, he has learnt the art of giving himself something resembling an even break. He still takes failure hard – impossibly hard, some would say – but he has become infinitely better at rationalising it. "Scotland was good for me," he says, referring to his revivifying spell in charge of Edinburgh, which led to his appointment as head coach of the national team in 2009 – a tour of duty that came to an end late last year, after the surprise loss to Tonga in Aberdeen.
"When the England job came to an end, I had to go away and find out who I was. I'd had a big kicking, my ego had taken quite a hit. I spent a lot of time thinking things through in an attempt to understand more about myself, about where I wanted to go with my career. The Edinburgh opportunity came at the right moment and I'll always be grateful for it, because it helped that process along.
"Of course, I was disappointed to leave the Scotland job in the way I did, but it was nowhere near as traumatic as what happened with England. I was the one who decided I should go, and I made that decision because I was growing increasingly frustrated at the way we were putting ourselves in positions to win Test matches and then working out ways to lose. In the end, you find yourself saying the same things in response to a defeat – to the players, to the media, to the people on the board – and there comes a point when you don't want to say them any more.
"But I wasn't in despair. Far from it. People might have seen me punching the wall of the coaching booth at Murrayfield, and yes, I have a grumpy face. But I was smiling inside, even when things weren't going to plan. I had, and still have, a lot of respect for the Scottish game, the people involved in it and the way it is played. It was a completely positive experience."
That being the case, Robinson did not feel the need to go into hiding and lick his wounds. He was tapped up by a couple of English Premiership clubs in the weeks following his departure, but the approach that interested him most came from Chris Booy, the Bristol chairman. The pair met in January and "hit it off immediately", according to Robinson. By mid-February, a four-year deal was struck. The task of restoring Bristol, a great club fallen on very hard times, to elite status – they have not been seen in the top flight since the third of their relegation calamities, in 2009 – is now in the hands of a dyed-in-the-wool Bath type.
West Country rugby folk were struck by two immediate thoughts. How could Robinson hope to win over hearts and minds given the historic bitterness of the "A4 rivalry"? (When Bath tried to lure Andy Blackmore away from his hometown club back in the 1990s, the line-out specialist was heard to say: "I couldn't go there. My mum would never speak to me again.") More importantly still, how could he possibly meet supporters' burgeoning expectations?
Those expectations have been fuelled by the money of the insurance magnate Steve Lansdown, a rich-list regular and majority shareholder at Bristol City FC who officially added the rugby club to his sporting portfolio a little over a year ago after rescuing the ailing business with a series of secret cash injections. It is the first time Bristol have enjoyed anything like this level of financial security, and with a move to a redeveloped Ashton Gate pencilled in for the end of next season, long-suffering followers can be forgiven for thinking that the appointment of a front-line international coach of Robinson's calibre gives them their last best chance of recapturing former glories.
"There is tremendous potential here," acknowledges the man from deepest Somerset. "In fact, the rich mix of heritage and potential was probably the thing that most attracted me. There is such a strong will for Bristol to be successful once again and the prospect of building a winning side based on the production of local talent while developing a really challenging philosophy of attacking rugby…that was what played on my mind after my early discussions with Chris Booy, and when I really thought it through, I realised how many boxes had ticks in them.
"But as things stand, potential is all it is. I don't have a strategy for immediate promotion and I didn't secure this job by telling the board: 'I can get you up this year.' In fact, I've spent my first few weeks explaining to everyone concerned that first and foremost, this is going to be about hard work.
"I'm enjoying being back on the training field, doing what I think I do best – getting stuck into the players one moment and putting an arm round them the next, but always seeking to empower them. At the same time, I want people to understand we're going to lose games of rugby as we set about building a successful environment together, and that it won't be the end of the world when we do. I can deal with defeat, as long we don't lose in a manner I consider disrespectful to the supporters and the shirt."
This afternoon, Bristol play their penultimate second-tier Championship game at London Scottish. They are currently fifth, three points behind Leeds despite having won a game more, and while they are clearly in contention for a semi-final place, Robinson is not holding his breath. "Leeds have a difficult run-in, but I can see them doing enough," he says. But if things go right, would he see instant promotion as a blessing, or as something very different?
"You'd never turn promotion down," he replies, "on the grounds that you might never find yourself in that position again. But to be successful on a sustainable basis, you need to be able to sign the right players to give depth to your squad, which means having the right financial model in place. My meetings with Chris Booy and Steve Lansdown have been extremely encouraging, but these things take time. I signed for four years for a reason."
During his playing days a dozen miles down the road, Robinson mixed it with Bristol twice a season, every season – three times, if the two clubs happened to be drawn against each other in the cup. "What did I think of them back then? I knew we'd always be in for a tough game, but I also knew we'd win," he says. "I knew that if we weathered the storm up front, they'd break. I lost to them only once: Easter, 1988. And we would have won that one if Stuart Barnes hadn't missed the important kick."
That defeat still rankles, clearly. Assuming Bristol return to the big league at some point in the foreseeable future, will he not feel just the slightest bit awkward on derby day? "When we go up," he replies, decisively, "I'll look forward to the moment when I take my team to the Recreation Ground." Then, after a brief pause, comes the pay-off line. "That's if Bath are still in the Premiership, of course."
Handy: Andy Robinson's record
Born 3 April 1964, Taunton
* Club career: 1986-97 Bath
* International career Eight England caps
* Honours Six Premiership titles; eight Pilk-ington Cups. European Player of the Year 1989
* Coaching career
* Honours 1997/98 Heineken Cup
Named Director of Rugby at Bristol in FebruaryReuse content