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Saturday, January 28, 2006


Rugby Personalities: “We won because we had outstanding players and leadership,”

“We lost our experience, leadership, and we lost direction off the pitch,” he said. “We didn’t understand what was going to happen off the pitch and we all have to examine our desire to be part of that."

By: Matthew Pinsent, 3 times gold medal winner at consecutive olympics.

The England head coach talks about the task of trying to emulate the nation's finest moment

ANDY ROBINSON is in a difficult situation — he spans two eras of rugby. The first is now universally recognised as England’s shining moment, the fulfilment of every rugby fan’s dream — an away win, in dramatic style, against the much-feared Australians to clinch the Webb Ellis Cup.

If Hollywood writers produced a sports movie script about rugby union, even they might have said: “No, it really can’t finish with an open-top bus tour round London and a trip to the Palace, where everyone has tea with the Queen.”

The curse for anyone, player or coach, who was not prepared to move on is, how can that be topped? So pity poor Robinson, now the head coach, for he was in the cast for the epic and he has the challenge of trying to keep the audience interested long after the titles have rolled.

He knows exactly how the World Cup was won in 2003. “We won because we had outstanding players and leadership,” he said. “We would have shot ourselves if we hadn’t won, to be honest. I think we had a belief we could win whenever England took the pitch. It was fortress Twickenham at home, but we had it away, too.”

Many outsiders saw the dip in form that followed Sydney as just the normal cycle of sport; that once the heights had been scaled, the aftermath was bound to be less successful. But Robinson is blunt with his riposte. “We lost our experience, leadership, and we lost direction off the pitch,” he said. “We didn’t understand what was going to happen off the pitch and we all have to examine our desire to be part of that. Look at the cricketers now. Part of our culture in England is we are not great when we win something. In rugby we had to start again and get the foundations right.”

He is refreshingly honest about his appointment to succeed Sir Clive Woodward. “I felt a little out of control,” he said. “Clive left and suddenly it was, ‘Wow, it has happened’.”

I look at his deep-set, narrow eyes to see if he really means it, but nothing makes me think that he wants to swallow the statement. “Last year there were games we lost and should have won — I’d rather be blown away than that. We gave cheap scores away,” he said. “I think we had it in parts of the Six Nations, just not the belief to finish it off. In the autumn internationals it was real belief, except in the last ten minutes against New Zealand. We didn’t have it then, nor the skill to beat them, and I take responsibility for that.”

Robinson talks passionately about rugby. His predecessor was more delicate with his words and was more sure of himself, but Robinson is more likeable. If you talk off the record to an England World Cup winner, he will tell you that if Woodward had 100 ideas, 99 of them were almost certainly hogwash, but the last one was worth hearing.

“I don’t think we’ve had 100 ideas, but we are looking at some new lenses to help the players with sight and glare,” Robinson said. “We have been working on our hydration strategy and that has helped with our consistency, but you can have too many ideas. If you have the core skills, you can develop from there.”

He seems to have a firm idea of what kind of player he wants. “We have to select the consistent performers,” he said. “When we don’t know what we are going to get from a player — whether it’s a great day or a poor day — it’s difficult to coach that. Some of the experiences we’ve had with players . . . one minute a world-beater, the next he wouldn’t get picked for your second team. The player who is as good and more consistent — he’ll get picked.”

There is one theme that keeps cropping up, that of resting players from their club responsibilities before international matches. Woodward left because he could not get such an agreement and one of the reasons that the autumn internationals were so good, according to Robinson, is that, for a while at least, he did. But ask him one simple question — what is the hardest part of having his job — and it comes rushing out of him like lava.

“The frustration of not having the players,” he answers. “I love club rugby — the players have to be playing for the clubs — but for me to be negotiating all the time is damaging for the sport.

“If we get it right we could be successful for years, because the players are there. When you look at the opposition, they have enabled their players to do it (with the exception of France). That is why it has become more of a level playing field. We’ve lost the edge. We had it, but we’ve given it away.”

Of course, no film gets eclipsed by its sequel and the campaign to hold on to the World Cup, no matter what happens, is not going to be more famous than 2003. That is not going to stop us going to see it, though — expect the queue at Twickenham to be as long as ever.

But the audience is likely to be more judgmental of the products on display and the RBS Six Nations Championship of 2006 may be Robinson’s only chance to stop his critics writing it all off as a flop. In the next two months they will see if his ingredients are right. If they are not, it will not be worth watching.

Powerade is the official sports drink of the RFU and the England rugby teams
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