But coach’s future likely to rest on his own belief in reversing three years of defeats
The bells rang out around the Eternal City yesterday morning and Scots flooded the Vatican City to worship a sunny new day, if only because it allowed them to close the book on another demoralising RBS Six Nations Championship.
No blue skies could help Scotland’s head coach, Andy Robinson, or his players, however, as they waited for a flight back to the UK, wondering where they were going as a squad.
Rome was where the problems began for Scotland 12 years ago when Ian McGeechan’s side were beaten in Italy’s first match in the new, expanded tournament, and defeat here ensured Matt Williams would experience the first Scottish whitewash in 2004. Frank Hadden’s days were numbered from the moment his side lost in Rome in 2008, the following season being no more than a stop-gap while the SRU waited for Andy Robinson to agree to take on the top job.
And now Robinson has two defeats in two visits to the Italian capital to look back on and the further embarrassment of having taken Scotland to a new low of 12th in the IRB World Rankings as he begins to wonder if the bells are tolling for him and his leadership of the Scotland national team.
No-one knows the answer to that yet. It sits within Robinson’s head. The pressure is immense with calls in his adopted homeland for him to go, based on the run of seven straight defeats – the worst since 1998 – during which Scotland have scored only four tries, and the fact that his team have gone from a ranking high of sixth under him to 12th, now behind Argentina, Tonga, Samoa and Italy.
England, a team that Scotland had on the rack at Murrayfield in the tournament’s opening game, improved with every match to finish second in the championship behind Grand Slam champions Wales. Warren Gatland’s side built on their World Cup adventure and semi-final appearance and though similarly under pressure against Scotland for all but 20 minutes in Cardiff in week two of the championship, the confidence developed this season was clear in the way they retained belief, finished clinically and strode on to a remarkable third Slam in seven years.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney is, according to Irish media, under real pressure for his job after they finished fourth, well beaten at Twickenham, while third-placed France can look on their tournament as a reasonable starting point for new coach Philippe Saint-Andre. The Italians, likewise, were happy to give their new chief. Jacques Brunel. a winning finale to his first season.
Robinson, meanwhile, stated after Saturday’s 13-6 defeat, which handed Scotland their first ‘wooden spoon’ since 2007 and only second whitewash since the tournament began, that he would take two weeks to review the championship with his fellow coaches, players and the SRU, and spend time with his family considering whether he is the right man to take Scotland forward. For us to weigh up the same question we have to look at it in the same way he will. Has his management, motivation and tactical approach taken Scotland forward? His win ratio is still marginally better than those of his recent predecessors, but two wins and a draw in three Six Nations tournaments, on the back of a first World Cup pool exit, he acknowledges is unacceptable. So, on results alone he stands facing the exit door.
There has been criticism fired at various figures in his coaching team over the past few years, but it is not attack coach Gregor Townsend, defence coach Graham Steadman, nor scrum coach Massimo Cuttitta who is ultimately responsible for Scotland’s team performances. That buck has to stop with the head coach.
Belief and confidence seem to have drained from the players through this run of defeats, and that was a key factor in Saturday’s poor display. Perhaps that is inevitable, but Robinson’s ability to motivate is also in question then.
He has opted for a more ambitious style of game, a ball-in-hand style rather than the prosaic kicking game around Dan Parks that made Scotland easy to play against.
When the team grasped it, they were more threatening and dangerous than for some years, but the players lacked the skills to take it on and become consistent under pressure. So it remains a work in progress, and will require more time and more improvement by players across Scottish rugby to become truly effective. But a national team head coach does not have time.
Record defeats are a thing of the past with Robinson’s team more competitive with every side they play against, and the fact that Murrayfield was full for a French international for the first time since 1994, after the Calcutta Cup match had been sold out very early, further indicated the support in Scotland for his style of rugby.
He has also had injuries to deal with, which is the same as every coach, of course, but the loss of such men as Kelly Brown, Joe Ansbro, Alasdair Strokosch, Ruaridh Jackson, Rory Lamont and Max Evans affects Scotland more deeply because of the lack of strength in depth in such a small rugby-playing nation.
What has provided optimism has been the emergence of talented young players under Robinson’s watch, notably Richie Gray, David Denton, Lee Jones, Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott and, on Saturday, Jon Welsh stood up to the Italian front row in a way that shows he does have potential at this level. Add in Mark Bennett and Harry Leonard next season and there should be the raw material for genuine progress.
However, the key remains that – under pressure – Scottish players’ skills have not stood up to scrutiny once again. That is not the fault of Robinson, but of Scottish rugby where rather than face increasing levels of intensity from the age of 17 to 21, Scottish players drop off through that crucial period and can find themselves training but playing very few matches, especially the most talented ones.
They come into the international arena under-prepared for the pace and intensity, and so they make mistakes, which at this level are invariably crucial to the result. SRU Director of Performance Rugby Graham Lowe has, working with others, begun to address that with new programmes going down to 14-year-olds, and with Sean Lineen’s appointment to new roles in this area. But that will take time. Robinson has to find ways around that now, and like every coach before him he is more aware of how challenging that is than he was upon taking on the Scotland job.
Matt Williams was accused of asking too much from players and playing a game too skilled for them to manage; Frank Hadden’s first season with Sean Lineen as backs coach was about unshackling players and letting them play freely, and they claimed three wins for the first and so far only time in the championship.
Hadden then moved towards a tighter style around Parks to make Scotland more competitive, and it did uncover wins in tight games, but it also brought the wooden spoon in 2007, and second bottom spot with just one win in 2008 and 2009. Scotland were never a concern for top ten nations. The approach also contributed to supporters walking away from Scotland Test matches and crowds falling. Scotland could actually rise several places in the world rankings in the summer as they will face a second-string Australia team on a Tuesday night as a warm-up for the Wallabies’ Test series with Wales, but with the hosts treated as a full side in rankings terms, and then play Fiji and Samoa.
But what happens in Australia and in the autumn is not significant right now. This season has provided a clear reminder of how the World Cup and Six Nations stages are where international sides are judged, the other ‘friendlies’ mere preparation for whoever is in charge.
McGeechan walked away as planned after three years, Williams was fired after two years with a record of three wins in 17 Tests and because he lost the dressing-room, and Hadden was sacked after four years because the team, and Scottish rugby community and supporters, had lost faith in his ability to make any more progress.
Robinson has won 12 of his 29 Tests and, two weeks ago, still had strong support from players, coaches and administrators across the SRU, the Scottish rugby community and supporters, but lost many sympathisers after Ireland and Italy. Still, the players believe in him, and many experienced coaches are confident in his abilities and fear the disruption his departure could bring.
That view is shared at the SRU, although the matter of Robinson’s future could be taken out of his employer’s hands if he receives a tempting offer to take on a big job in England. After three years based in Edinburgh while his family have stayed in the south-west, an approach would have to be taken seriously.
I believe that Robinson is a good coach who has got it wrong in recent weeks, with players who have let him down badly, and the SRU should keep faith for another year to give him one more chance to turn it around. Admittedly, that is a gamble and would need a significant catalyst for change, because the evidence of the past three seasons – and the backward steps of the last two games – is that what he believed he could do has not worked. We have pointed to enouraging signs of progress during this campaign, but that was only apparent during two of the five games played.
There will be changes anyway, with Matt Taylor and Scott Johnson replacing Graham Steadman and Gregor Townsend in the management set-up. But, with the SRU backing him, whether Robinson stays or goes will hinge on whether he retains confidence in himself and his players, and the belief that he can drive them towards success.