'Show me a good loser," said the great gridiron coach Vince Lombardi, undisputed world champion of the sporting one-liner, "and I'll show you a loser." Andy Robinson would not have been much use to him as a demonstration model.
Robinson knows what it is to lose – his Scotland team currently sit at the foot of the Six Nations table, with nothing but a big fat zero to show from their three outings to date – but if there is anyone in this world who loathes the feeling more, he is hiding in a cave somewhere.
"Defeat? I still don't get it," says the West Countryman with one of those trademark grimaces of his. "I don't understand it, and there's nothing in my character that makes me want to understand it. I think I've become a little better at rationalising and verbalising things in public, but I hate the feeling of losing and always will. It makes me angry." Have the Scotland players seen that anger at first hand? "Oh yeah. They got a load of it after the Wales game."
Ah, Wales. Scotland played terrific attacking rugby for 70 minutes of that game in Cardiff three weeks ago – "73 minutes, actually," their head coach points out – before committing collective hara-kiri in a dozen different positions. They fell off their tackles, lost their defensive shape, let their discipline slip to the tune of two yellow cards and became so completely discombobulated that they could not even salvage a draw by ending the game when it was crying out to be ended. Mike Blair's generous decision to kick the ball to the Welsh players in their 22 instead of banging it towards the Welsh supporters in Row Z allowed the home side to run it back and win the match. Robinson's sense of humour failure was – how shall we put it? – profound.
So profound, indeed, that the incident was still eating away at him 13 days later, on the eve of last weekend's meeting with Italy in Rome. "I was watching the Friday night game between Wales and France in our meeting room," he recalls. "A few of the players were there. Wales put themselves back in range with a try in the last minute, only to see Frédéric Michalak make damned sure there would be no more rugby by smacking the ball straight into touch from the restart. It was such an obvious thing to do. I couldn't bring myself to say anything more on the subject, so I walked out."
Scotland went on to lose a tight game at Stadio Flaminio and, as a consequence, they are strong favourites to finish bottom of the Six Nations – not quite the return they anticipated after beating the Wallabies, by hook or by crook, at Murrayfield before Christmas. But as Robinson has acknowledged on several occasions down the years, the thing that prevents him being entirely consumed by wrathful exasperation is the prospect of "another shot at it" in the next game. That next game happens to be the Calcutta Cup contest with England a week today.
There is no prouder, more resolutely patriotic Englishman than Robinson. He gave everything he had to give – heart and soul was not the half of it – as a red-rose flanker in the late 1980s and was the conscience of the World Cup-winning coaching team pieced together by Clive Woodward. When he succeeded Woodward as top dog, he moved heaven and earth to defend the national team's position, but could not summon the powers of persuasion to move an unsupportive, penny-pinching Rugby Football Union in the same direction. After weeks and months of agonising, he admitted defeat in the autumn of 2006. It would be the best part of a year before he coached again.
If he did not doubt his desire to return to international rugby at some stage – "Never once," he insists – Scotland was hardly the most obvious place of salvation, and while Robinson has fast developed a strong attachment to the country and its rugby folk, the match next weekend will surely be awkward for him.
"Awkward? Not at all," he replies with something approaching an air of serenity. "There's nothing awkward about taking abuse from both sides. Seriously, I really don't think it will be difficult or uncomfortable for me. Maybe if you'd asked me three or four years ago how I'd feel about coaching against England, I'd have given you a different answer. But the things that happened are behind me now. I'm a professional coach, and I'm working with and for people who are completely supportive. England are the opposition we have in front of us and the occasion will take care of itself. My job is to work out a way of beating a physically powerful side well equipped to slow us down while accumulating points, and ensuring that my players understand exactly what it takes to beat them.
"I'm looking forward to seeing this Scotland side raise their performance, to develop the ruthless streak that will allow them to move on to the next level. Ruthlessness is the key aspect, the quality that separates the winners from the losers. To my mind, there can be no excuses for defeat in a game you've controlled for long periods of time. In our first Six Nations match, France were comfortable in beating us. I accept that. What I don't accept is what happened in Cardiff and Rome, because we were in positions to win both times. What I'm trying to get across to the players is this: when you're on top, you kill; when you're not, you absorb. Watch Brian O'Driscoll play for Ireland and you'll see what I mean.
"We had this edge during my playing days at Bath. We were a talented team, certainly, but not a team of world-beaters. What we created – the thing that distinguished us from other clubs and helped us win trophy after trophy for a decade – was a charged, challenging environment that produced a lot of negative emotion, but was managed in such a way that the negativity was channelled in a positive direction." A bit like No 10 under Gordon Brown? Robinson looks perplexed. "I'm so locked into this job, I don't know what you're on about. What's he done now?"
There was a time, long before his move north, when Robinson thought the Scots would maximise their international potential by catching the first flights out of Edinburgh and Glasgow and playing their club rugby in England or France, rather like the Italians, the Argentines and the Pacific Islanders. He no longer thinks anything of the kind, which is probably as well. Instead, he sees the fast-improving Magners League as the bedrock of the domestic game, and if he is nowhere near as dogmatic about Scots playing in Scotland as Warren Gatland is about his Welshmen playing in Wales, he is confident the two major city clubs will prove an increasingly attractive option for his front-line performers.
"The Magners League is not there yet: there's still a way to go," he says. "I'd like to see more prize-money, greater incentives for teams to really throw themselves at the tournament, an attempt to give it a much higher profile. If you look at the Premiership in England, it's clear that the people running it have a very clear idea of what it is they're fighting for. For too long, teams were in the Magners for different reasons, using it for their own ends. The Celtic nations need to stand up for themselves and their tournament and really make something of it. If they do that, I think it will work really well from everyone's perspective. The more hard, meaningful rugby they play, the more the players will understand of what it takes to win."
If that is a long-term project, Robinson has his short-term plans for sharpening the Scottish act ahead of next week's contest. During his time at Bath, he experienced more than one "honesty session": the West Country club's time-honoured reaction to defeat, an extreme form of shame-culture therapy in which the players pointed fingers and hurled home truths at each other as a means of flushing out the system.
"This team should have won two games out of the three," he says. "I think it's time for a little honesty. The players won't like it, but I intend to put them in a room together and have them thrash it out amongst themselves. Me? I'll just sit there listening, with a smile on my face." We have seen that smile of Robinson's before. It is not the smile of a happy man.Reuse content