Andy Robinson: Brave change of heart for a Red Rose revived

Lambasted former England coach has taken time to reflect on failure and is ready to boost Scotland's fortunes in one of the oldest and greatest of sporting rivalries. Richard Wilson speaks to Andy Robinson
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The Independent Online

The glance towards the pitch, which is cast in the sharp hopefulness of the late September sun, is one of lingering warmth. His eyes see much out there: exertions stretched and spent, small battles scattered and fought, characters revealed and diminished; all an expression in deeds of what he has come here to say. "It's nice, isn't it?" says Andy Robinson, as though he might be casually remarking about the crispness of his lawn. But he is sitting in a suite high in the sweeping stands of Murrayfield and, for a moment, one of the great warrior spirits of English rugby is lost to himself.

Such a combative figure, a man so steeped in the gruff certainties of competition that the only definition he seeks is that of winner or loser, seldom grants himself a reprieve from the aggressiveness of his instincts. There is, though, something serene to Robinson, a kind of reassurance or understanding. He has just left a roomful of rugby correspondents after the first of the regular informal briefings he intends to hold as Scotland's head coach and, three months into the job, there is no air of a man still searching for meaning or confirmation.

This, of course, is the place where Robinson came to reassert himself, to find a way to claim back the authority of his coaching ability and, crucially, to affirm again the sense of himself as an emphatic man of principle and conviction. That was with Edinburgh, the club he took charge of two years ago and guided to fourth then second, their highest ever finishes, in the Magners League. Now, the challenge that again demands so much of his awareness, so much of himself, is to achieve the same progress with Scotland.

This son of Somerset, whose great passions are rugby and cricket, who might once have come closest to resembling the very heart of English patriotism, who was the coach of the side Sir Clive Woodward guided to Grand Slam and World Cup triumphs, now represents the hope of the Scottish nation that the balance of one of the oldest, and greatest, rivalries in sport can be realigned.

He was shaped as a player and coach at Bath, then honed by his time with England, but we wonder how much of that matters now? "Nothing at all," Robinson says firmly. "The people who are important, who win games, are the players. I've never known any coach win a game of rugby. They can guide, challenge, change tactics, but the people who deliver win games, and that's the players."

The answer is typically composed, as no comment escapes Robinson without first being weighed and felt for its consequences. He is acutely aware of the nuances of his position. In truth, though, his nationality has never been an issue in Scotland, certainly not in the overwrought, indignant way that it would be should an Englishman take charge of the Scotland football team, or a Scot replace Martin Johnson.

That, in part, is down to the deeply held national wish for the Scotland rugby side to be less careless with the ambitions of their followers. Too often, the uplifting influence of occasionally haughty and self-possessed performances is reduced by more commonplace displays of meek insecurity. Yet it is also an effect of Robinson's poise, the way he folded himself into the rhythm of Murrayfield's sounds and furies.

He has been so assured, and the performances of Edinburgh were so heartening, that his elevation to the national job was widely considered as the only legitimate decision the Scottish Rugby Union could make following Frank Hadden's departure– even though it is Scottish sport that tends to give the strongest voice to the old Celtic prejudices, the ancient resentments that are heard in the songs around Murrayfield and Hampden.

"I have to say, I don't even think about that," says Robinson. "I look forward to coming to Murrayfield, I look forward to coaching the team, I'm so looking forward to the team running out on to the pitch and performing. That's why you go into it, for those challenges. I'm looking to see how we all respond, and the crowd."

As he sits here, smaller than you imagine, less physically imposing, the remaining hint of a tan softening the inscrutability of his broad, rigorous features, you understand that it is in a sense of order that Robinson finds an ease of expression. In his two years in charge of England – "22 games, 13 lost," he says wryly, repeating the statistic most often used to describe his spell in charge – it was in dealing with the game's administrators, and press, that he lost the sureness of his footing.

On the rugby pitch, in the midst of the urgings and the currents of this game that can be stripped down to a test of a player's strength, of mind and body, Robinson is at his most lucid. If Woodward was the architect of England's 2003 World Cup-winning side, it was Robinson's rough, weather-beaten hands that put each building block into place. During Edinburgh games, he could be seen rising from his seat in a fury of anguish at some misplaced tactic or instruction, a kind of fervour that made you understand the essential nature of this 44-year-old father of four.

But he came to understand his deficiencies away from the pitch and dressing room. In the seven months following his departure from England, he took stock, of himself, of his approach to rugby, to life. He even tried a brief return to the classroom – he is a trained PE teacher – only for the experience to confirm that it is in rugby, and the coaching and management of a team, that he finds the greatest purpose. So he began working with Footdown, a company that provides mentoring in leadership, and although much of what he says now is polished management speak, it is heartfelt.

"It's given me a clear understanding of what I'm about," Robinson says. "I went straight from playing into coaching, so I'd never thought about who I was. Through Footdown, I've been able to manage people, lead people, empower people, because I have a greater understanding of myself. I looked at some of the mistakes I'd potentially made [with England]. I do back myself, but I also wrote down a model for how I saw a rugby team to be managed and coached. I didn't do that when I took over England."

So he talks now of creating a culture of winners in the Scotland team, no matter whether it is by free-spirited rugby or by grinding resolve. It was 2001 when Scotland last won back-to-back victories in the Six Nations, and in each of the last three tournaments the team won only one of their five matches. This is the inherent weakness of fibre that he must set about eradicating but, a deeply thoughtful man with an enduring appreciation for rugby's time-served values, he is keenly aware of the responsibility the game needs to show in the wake of a summer of drug revelations and the Bloodgate scandal.

"It's a reminder to everybody that you can't assume anything," he says. "The negative effects that these headlines create are a major realisation that there is an important moral part to perform at the highest level and yes, we all want to win, we all want to play on the edge, but not go over the edge.

"I have big issues about the drug use, because I have young children who want to play this sport and it will damage the sport hugely. But I'd like to think we can more forward."

In the autumn Tests in November, against Fiji, Australia and Argentina, we will begin to see the tone and texture of what Robinson is attempting to achieve with this team. We will see, too, how much he has grown as a coach and manager, if his tactics and selections stand the greater, more brutal scrutiny of international rugby, where defeat generates a cruel vindictiveness.

Although the team he inherited from Woodward were dwindling, with key players retiring or debilitated by injury, Robinson was abruptly and mercilessly judged during his time in charge of England. By the end, it seemed that the kindest act was a parting of the ways. Even former team-mates, in their roles as media commentators, were unbound in their criticism.

"I understand why, when England are losing, people make comments," Robinson says coldly. "Ultimately, I was responsible. But there's a level you go to. I'm not going to mention them by name, but some people overstepped the mark in what they said and that had implications for my family. That was out of order."

He discussed his return to international rugby with his family but then they, more than any others, would understand how much of his sense of worth is reflected by his role in the game. He might still feel the disappointments of his time as England's head coach like a nagging regret, but when Murrayfield hosts his former side in the Six Nations next March, he will be plotting a victory for its own sake, not redemption.

"England is only one game," he says. "Like all Test matches, I'm looking forward to it, but it's not going to be won by Martin Johnson or Andy Robinson. I looked at myself and thought: 'am I the right person to lead Scotland?' I believe I am, but it's not about me."

He looks again at the pitch. "It's ready for some rugby," he says softly, almost to himself.

Crossing the border

PETER NICOL Born in Inverurie, the squash player won Commonwealth gold in 1998 and the World Open title in 1999, but felt he did not receive enough support from the governing body and in 2001 switched to England, where he had lived for 10 years. He then won Commonwealth silver in 2002 and gold in 2006.

GAVIN HAMILTON Having broken into the Yorkshire team, he played for his native Scotland at the 1999 cricket World Cup but was called up for England's tour of South Africa in 2000. Dropped after poor performances with bat and ball, he had to wait four years to qualify again for Scotland, and was appointed captain last April.

STUART McCALL Born in Leeds to Scottish parents, the bustling midfielder was selected for both Scotland and England Under-21 squads in 1984. He chose the latter. With one minute to go against Turkey, he took so long tying his boots that the game finished before he came on. He later switched to Scotland, winning 40 caps.

BUDGE POUNTNEY With a grandmother from the Channel Islands, the flanker was eligible to play for any of the home nations. Despite being born in Southampton, he opted to play for Scotland. He captained the national team, though he quit in 2003 in frustration at the SRU.

TERRY BUTCHER The blood-stained and unbowed figure is the epitome of the Three Lions' pride. But the former England captain lived much of his life north of the border after joining Rangers in 1986 and is now assistant to the Scotland manager, George Burley.

MIKE DENNESS The Bellshill-born batsman represented Scotland 10 times but played Test and one-day cricket for England after moving to Kent. In 1973, he succeeded Ray Illingworth as England captain, much to the dismay of Geoff Boycott, who coveted the post himself.

Richard Wilson

Life and times

Name: Richard Andrew Robinson.

Born: 3 April 1964, Taunton, Somerset.

Position: Flanker.

Club career: Bath 1984-1997 (249 appearances, 37 tries, 186 points).

International career: England 1988-95 (8 caps, 1 try, 4pts); British Lions tour of Australia 1989 (6 apps).

Coaching career: Bath 1997-2000, with Clive Woodward (pictured right, with Robinson) as his assistant; won Heineken Cup 1998. Appointed England forwards coach, May 2000; won 2003 World Cup with Woodward as head coach. England head coach 2004-06. Edinburgh and Scotland A, 2007-09. Appointed head coach of Scotland, June 2009.

Highlights: European Player of the Year 1989. Awarded OBE 2003.

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