Robinson the hard fanatic dedicated to building the new England

The recently installed red rose head coach extols the virtues of courage and self-belief to Chris Hewett before the first real marker of the post-Woodward era in today's Test against South Africa at Twickenham
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Andy Robinson might have played cricket for a living. Sufficiently talented to have represented the West of England at Under-15 level - a very decent standard indeed - he was moving serenely through the grades when he found himself facing a young fast bowler by the name of David "Syd" Lawrence. "He sent down a short delivery and hit me on the side of the neck, just below the ear," Robinson recalled this week, his eyes watering at the memory. "It told me all I needed to know about my reflexes, or lack of them." But everyone gets nailed by a quick one sooner or later, surely? "Yes," he sighed, "but this was his slower ball."

Andy Robinson might have played cricket for a living. Sufficiently talented to have represented the West of England at Under-15 level - a very decent standard indeed - he was moving serenely through the grades when he found himself facing a young fast bowler by the name of David "Syd" Lawrence. "He sent down a short delivery and hit me on the side of the neck, just below the ear," Robinson recalled this week, his eyes watering at the memory. "It told me all I needed to know about my reflexes, or lack of them." But everyone gets nailed by a quick one sooner or later, surely? "Yes," he sighed, "but this was his slower ball."

Lawrence went on to bowl his heart out for his country, and might have taken a serious number of wickets had his left knee not exploded during a Test match against New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington in 1992. By chance, Robinson found himself at the self-same venue in the summer of 2003, preparing the England team for a pre-World Cup meeting with the All Blacks. "It was eerie," he said. "Syd and I have been friendly for years now - he was my first sporting room-mate - and I know the agony he went through with that injury of his. It destroyed his career, poor bloke. Try as I might, I couldn't get the thought of it out of my mind. I can't say I enjoyed that training session very much."

There are those who wonder whether Robinson and enjoyment might be strangers at the best of times. During his playing days in the Bath back row, the phrase "bundle of laughs" was not common currency among his opponents. "I've come up against some grim buggers in my time, but Robbo takes it to new levels," muttered one of his great rivals, the Bristol captain Derek Eves, after a particularly fractious West Country derby. And once he had committed himself to full-time coaching at the Recreation Ground, Robinson frequently disappeared in a toxic cloud of his own intensity. One infamous press conference at Wasps lasted less than 15 seconds - the time it took him to register his disgust at his team's performance in a single sentence of a dozen barbed words.

Yet the old wisecrack about England's new head coach being one of the few men on earth who looks angrier the happier he is, cannot be dismissed as entirely inaccurate. One man's misery is another's revelry. This afternoon's match with the Springboks, the first significant marker of the post-Woodward era and a "Test" in every sense, is precisely the kind of challenge Robinson craves, and he has been blissfully fanatical all week, coaxing and cajoling individual players in a series of private meetings in various dark corners of the team hotel.

To a large extent, his rugby career has been defined by his tangles with the South Africans. He won the last of his eight caps against the Boks at Twickenham in 1995 - recalled by his old Bath mentor, Jack Rowell, to spearhead a game England were wholly incapable of playing, he found himself stranded in no-man's-land, firing blanks from a pea-shooter - and ran into them again in Pretoria in his first Test as an international coach. They represent much of what he loves about his sport: the belligerence, the ferocity, the physicality. And the brutality? Yes, that too, if we're being honest.

"South Africa and France," he said, with a knowing smile. "They're the ones when it comes to the physical challenge. In every aspect of the game, in every area of the pitch, they ask you the big question: what are you prepared to do to win this match? Take a backward step - just one - and they'll find you out, expose you in your frailties. The Boks are especially good at this, because they set out to win their games of rugby in a very particular way." They want to beat you up, as well as beat you? Is that it? Robinson did not disagree. "It's not just about fronting up at this level, it's about making sure everyone standing next to you knows you're going to front up. There can be no place for weakness. I learned that a long time ago, on the green grass of Lambridge."

Lambridge? There is not much to the place. A few large Victorian houses on the eastern approaches to Bath and, bang on the main road, a couple of playing fields stretching down towards the river. The city's sporting pride and joy, the rugby club, have trained there for longer than anyone cares to remember, and when an ambitious Robinson joined after leaving Loughborough University in 1986, he walked into an environment so ridiculously confrontational that Achilles himself might have opted for a quiet night in. He was, after all, in the unenviable position of challenging the wild-eyed Roger Spurrell, whose idea of mercy was to ensure his opponents had access to an ambulance, for the first-team place he cherished with a passion bordering on the obsessive.

"The training on a Monday night was often harder than the match on a Saturday afternoon," Robinson acknowledged, "and the virtues of strength and courage and reliability quickly became part of my mindset. When people count on you, as they do in any game of rugby, you have to respond. That's what I mean about fronting up. I made mistakes as a player, obviously, but I'd like to think I always fronted."

And never whined or moaned, no matter what? "I whinged once, when we played down in Aberavon in my early days. I took a terrible kicking, a really bad one, and I complained to the referee. Jack Rowell was coaching at the time, and he got to hear about it. Let's just say he put me right."

Any other little incidents? Robinson warmed to his theme. "I remember playing Newport at Rodney Parade and my opposite number was Roger Powell, a hard nut if ever there was one. My first job as an open-side flanker was to hunt the ball and win it. If I couldn't do that, I had to kill the ball - disrupt, destroy, make it impossible for the opposition to play. In the process of doing that against Roger, I got under his skin. He gave a tremendous amount of stick that day, but I felt good about it. Why? Because it earned me the respect of my team. That's the best feeling there is. And you know, I was never shown a card of any description in all the time I played. Not white, not yellow, not red. You have to be clever in this game, as well as brave."

Robinson was as brave a loose forward as any in the past 20 years. What was more, he had fathomless reserves of self-belief - reserves on which he draws to this day. He never lost a cup final as a player, has yet to lose one as a coach, and swears on all that is holy that he has never even considered the faint prospect of suffering such a defeat. "It doesn't cross my mind," he insisted, with a vehemence that brooked no dispute. "What is important to me is that people see me for what I am, and I expect to win. It's not an act. I remember playing Leicester in a final at Twickenham when they took us to pieces in every department. They should have killed us. We were so poor, dear old Darren Garforth" - the roly-poly prop who won 24 caps for England - "was able to make a clean break from the tail of a line-out. Unheard of, that. Yet who won the game? Not them." Yes, Andy, but it took a dodgy penalty try in injury time to see Bath home. "We won," he repeated, his eyes narrowing.

"I always believed we'd win against Brive in the Heineken Cup final back in '98, when we were massive outsiders, and I had total belief that England would beat Australia to win the World Cup last year. Of course I did. Those two examples are very similar. When Bath took on Brive, who were a brilliant side at that point, there were a number of special people in my team who knew they would not get another opportunity to win a European title. It was the same with England in Sydney. Players like Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio were acutely aware that this was their chance, their moment. People of that stature rise to the ultimate challenge, and conquer.

"That is precisely the spirit I want to develop as we build this new England side. I enjoy giving players the opportunity to make the most of themselves, but I have no time for people who settle for being also-rans. All my rugby life, I've operated under pressure. When I played at Bath, it wasn't only the coaches, the Rowells and Brian Ashtons, who put the heat on you, but the peer group. Stuart Barnes, John Hall, Jerry Guscott - there was nowhere to hide in that dressing-room. Shrinking violets didn't get picked, simple as that. What did you need to do to survive? Three things. Deflect the worst of the insults, love yourself and perform on the pitch. If you managed to do all that, you had a realistic chance of getting through the day."

It was a hard school, down there on the banks of the Avon, and as a result of his experiences, Robinson now teaches a hard lesson. His charges have their first examination this afternoon, and they are expected to pass. God help them if they fail.

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