Robinson's scowl masks enthusiasm for England role

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The Independent Online

England's new head coach - a head coach of the "acting" variety for the next week or so, but one already exuding an air of permanence - spent much of yesterday fielding questions about everything under the sun.

England's new head coach - a head coach of the "acting" variety for the next week or so, but one already exuding an air of permanence - spent much of yesterday fielding questions about everything under the sun: Sir Clive Woodward and his legacy, the national team and their prospects of avoiding two damaging home defeats by South Africa and Australia this autumn, the practicalities of the now notorious Elite Player Scheme, the general uselessness of the red rose back division, you name it. But the most important issue was saved until last. Now he was top dog, would he consider wiping the perpetual scowl from his face? "No," he replied. "Not at all."

Andy Robinson is a natural-born winner - just ask the mad, bad and thoroughly dangerous Roger Spurrell, whom he famously engaged in a gladiatorial scrap for Bath's No 7 shirt the moment he arrived at the Recreation Ground from Loughborough University in the mid-1980s - and the 40-year-old West Countryman reinforced the point to the power of 10 as he outlined his immediate plans during a gathering at England's country hotel headquarters in Bagshot. In the course of a performance as impressive as any he produced as a Test flanker, he offered what amounted to a credo for the post-Woodward era.

If he has always been a creature of fierce self-belief - "I am firmly convinced of my ability to do this job, otherwise I wouldn't be here talking to you," he snapped - Robinson is not so obsessed with his own navel that he cannot see his faults. "As a side, we have become very narrow in our focus," he admitted. "I think that explains, at least partially, our poor results since winning the World Cup last November. I have played a part in creating this narrowness, and I understand the importance of learning from my mistakes. I know how inward I can become, and how essential it is that I address that failing. Yes, I have a driving ambition to win, and to make sure England succeed. But I also want to enjoy myself."

As Robinson is one of the few men who look less happy the happier they are, his determination to continue with the scowl is wholly reassuring. So too is his commitment to working closely with, rather than above and beyond, the directors of rugby at the 12 Premiership clubs - the "dirty dozen", as Woodward cast them in his scattergun attack on all and sundry five days ago.

"Bridges have to be built and relationships have to be created," acknowledged Robinson, far more of a club-driven rugby man than his predecessor ever was. "You don't create relationships by not talking to people. The Elite Player Scheme is not perfect, and there will be disagreements along the way. I had disagreements with a couple of people only last week. But these are the things that give rugby its vibrancy. If we all said the same things all the time, life would be pretty boring."

The new man is not so terribly new, having been hand-picked as second-in-command by Woodward at the end of the 2000 Six Nations' Championship. Prior to that, the two had worked together at Bath, whom Robinson had guided to the European title in 1998 - a ground-breaking achievement that set in train a run of Heineken Cup success for Northampton, Leicester and Wasps. There was a sense of balance about their working relationship, an easy confluence of roles. Woodward was more, far more, than the public face of Ruthless England Inc., that masterpiece of sporting single-mindedness, but Robinson was both its beating heart and its conscience. Now he is running the show, England will be more tracksuited than sharp-suited, but no less professional for that.

He has no plans to tinker with the back-room personnel Woodward left behind: Phil Larder will continue as England's defensive coach, Dave Alred as the kicking specialist, Joe Lydon as the one-man attacking think-tank. There will, however, be significant changes to the modus operandi. Robinson plans to outline these changes when the Rugby Football Union's appointments panel gather next week under the chairmanship of the former international centre John Spencer.

Many people, not least Woodward, are flabbergasted that Robinson is being put to the trouble of appearing before a panel of any description. Francis Baron, the chief executive, agreed yesterday that "Andy had nothing to prove" and was "clearly in a very strong position". As Baron rarely says anything that might leave him a hostage to fortune, his words indicated that Robinson need only don a shirt and tie and speak in sentences containing both nouns and verbs to win the support of Twickenham grandees - especially as they include the union's performance director Chris Spice and the council member Simon Halliday. Spice is a strong supporter of Robinson's, while Halliday spent years playing alongside him at Bath.

There is, however, one potential stumbling block. Robinson clearly covets a coaching role on next year's Lions tour, due to be led by Woodward; indeed, it seems patently obvious that the two men reached agreement to this effect some time ago. Should Robinson travel to New Zealand, someone else will have to take England's non-Lions to Canada for the annual Churchill Cup tournament - supposedly an important contributor to the development of potential internationals. Those at the RFU who believe the Lions take rather more than their pound of flesh from England every four years will not be ecstatic at the thought of their best young talent heading off in one direction while their new head coach disappears in another.

This was the one issue Robinson felt tempted to duck yesterday. "The Lions? That's between me and the panel," he said. Then, as if he could not quite help himself, he expanded on this attempt at a no-comment. "The Lions is a little compartment of eight weeks, and a lot of England players will be on the trip," he said, defensively. "I learned a great deal on the Lions tour in 2003, both good and bad, both about players and about myself." And by way of drawing a line under the subject, he added: "Obviously, I'll make a decision that puts England first." So that's clear, then.

Happily, such smokescreens are untypical of the man. Robinson has a reputation for thinking before saying, and then saying what he thinks. "I come from a background where everything is about winning, and I intend to re-establish a winning mentality," he pronounced. God help those who fail to meet his expectations.

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