For those interested in individual journeys, in comebacks, in people showing the resilience to bounce back from rock bottom, there is an enticing sub-plot to the 2010 RBS Six Nations.
The return of a man much-vilified, ridiculed even, dismissed as being out of his depth, as being ill-equipped to operate at the helm of an international rugby team. And he returns as Head Coach of a great rival having returned to club rugby and quietly rebuilt a tattered reputation. Welcome back Andy Robinson, Scotland Coach.
All in all it is rather surprising to see him again as a Head Coach in the Six Nations. It is little over 3 years since he was relieved of his duties as England Team Manager having presided over a run of 6 defeats in 7 games. His was the era which will always be associated with seeing Martin Corry, blood seeping from the ever-present cut on his nose, facing up to the post-match interview oozing disappointment and misery and Andy Robinson sitting helpless in the stand, brow growing more furrowed by the day. For the coach of a leading rugby nation, the World Champions at that, to be sacked less than a year out from the World Cup was unusual and therefore especially humiliating.
Having been the successful Head Coach under Sir Clive Woodward as England won the World Cup, and coached Bath to the Heineken Cup in 1998, he was thrown a spectacular hospital pass. He was given the reins of England just when the collection of great players who had taken them to World Cup glory had retired. Furthermore, the all-powerful Woodward had resigned after failing to reach an agreement with the RFU and the clubs regarding access to players. And Robinson was handed Woodward’s role on top of his existing one. The RFU essentially decapitated the England regime and didn’t replace the top man, instead asking the second in command to expand his responsibilities. This was rather akin to sacking the Prime Minister and asking a Deputy Prime Minister with no real desire to take over while retaining his existing duties.
From the very start he gave the impression of being reluctant and rather out of his depth. His infamous selection of Jamie Noon and Mike Tindall, probably the least creative centre partnership in history, for an entire Six Nations was just one of the causes of intense annoyance among the English rugby public. By the time of his resignation, he looked a broken man.
It is an enormous tribute to Robinson that he has fought his way back at all, let alone so quickly. He sought refuge in the lower profile rugby environment of Scotland as Head Coach of Edinburgh and quietly went about re-establishing himself. While he lacked the skills required to be the top man in such a complicated rugby structure as England where he needed to be as much a politician as a team manager, his record as a pure coach was and remains outstanding. A 4th place and a 2nd place in the Magners League and improved showings in the Heineken Cup made him the obvious successor when Frank Hadden’s tenure came to a conclusion.
So how can we expect him to cope? He started with a bang by defeating Australia courtesy of one of the most extraordinary backs-to-the-wall defensive performances in recent times. But they followed it up with defeat to a half-strength Argentina, just in case Robinson was under any illusions as to the size of the task ahead of him.
Will he be able to operate any better as Head Coach of Scotland than he did as manager of England? There is no reason why he shouldn’t. Expectations are different in Scotland and understandably so given the paucity of their resources. But more importantly. Scotland has a franchise system in which everything is controlled centrally and therefore everyone is pulling in the same direction. All roads lead to the national team. There are not the myriad competing interests which pervade in the English game. The political and negotiating element to the role to which Robinson was so ill-suited with England simply does not exist north of the border. He can get on with what he does best – coaching.
The other area which left question marks over Robinson’s head was regarding some of his selection decisions. But with a smaller group of players to pull from, there is far less potential for selectorial howlers. And of course he can draw on his past experiences, positive and negative, to come to the right verdicts.
Andy Robinson is one of the good guys, a popular individual about whom you rarely hear a bad word on a personal level. He clearly possesses resilience, single-mindedness and ambition in abundance. Unlike Scotland’s previous non-native coach, the disastrous Matt Williams, he has a deep knowledge of and empathy for Scottish rugby and can cut his cloth accordingly. Despite reservations about his abilities, the English rugby public never bore him any ill will and nobody revelled in the sight of an all round good bloke drowning. And they will wish him luck as he embarks on the next phase of what is turning into one of the more interesting and unusual coaching careers of modern times.
By Stuart Peel