Tom English: Silence on Robinson speaks volumes

Scotland got everything they deserved in a humiliating defeat to Tonga. Picture: Getty
Scotland got everything they deserved in a humiliating defeat to Tonga. Picture: Getty
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ADMITTEDLY, it was a tweet and then a retweet between two players who had no part in the fiasco at Pittodrie last Saturday evening but it was instructive nonetheless, adding weight to the view that, within the wider Scotland rugby squad, there is a softness and an excuse-making culture that needs to be dismantled.

In the wake of the 21-15 loss to Tonga, Jim Hamilton, off duty for the day but one of the real hard cases in the set-up, tweeted about his frustration at seeing his mates fall in a heap in Aberdeen, not that he put it in such a stark way. “Absolutely gutted to see the Scotland boys lose today,” he wrote. “We deserve so much more than what results show.” This plaintive cry was then retweeted by fellow Scottish international forward, Ryan Grant, another player who obviously felt that Scotland deserved so much more.

Quite how they came to this conclusion is not immediately obvious. It can’t, surely, have come from anything they saw on the pitch, for their mates performed wretchedly and warranted nothing but defeat.

So how did they deserve so much more? Maybe that simple tweet spoke to a wider culture within the dressing room, an attitude of sulking self-pity and lack of honesty in facing up to the weaknesses in their make-up, weaknesses that a Tongan side stripped of all bar four or five of the starting line-up that beat the French at the last World Cup ruthlessly exposed. Scotland had all the territory and all the possession to pull a victory out of the jaws of defeat last Saturday but they didn’t have the mental capacity. They didn’t have it in close games in last season’s Six Nations either. They didn’t have it against Argentina and England during the World Cup. They didn’t have it against Wales in an earlier Six Nations game when they were a mile ahead with minutes to go and still lost.

What they “deserve” has got nothing to do with it.

It’s been interesting observing these players on Twitter since Andy Robinson called a halt to his reign and resigned.

Robinson had to go but the manner of his leaving reinforced the impression that, whatever his failings as a head coach at this level, he is a good and honourable guy. Clearly he felt he was no longer the right man for the job but he could have hung on in there and forced the SRU to sack him and then pay him off, a tactic we have seen from his counterpart in football, Craig Levein. Rather than drag things out, however, Robinson’s departure was swift and it was done with a lot of class. In dynamiting his regime, he showed the kind of decisive decision-making under pressure that he’s spent three-and-a-half years trying to teach his players – to little avail.

The Twitter reaction has been a bit of a non-reaction. If you look at their home pages, Scotland players tweet about everything and anything, from the television programme Homeland to Joey Barton’s new French accent to mumbo jumbo and in-jokes that nobody could hope to understand. The majority of the players who failed their coach are on Twitter and tweet either prolifically or pretty regularly and yet only a small few of them afforded their former coach a mention when he left. Not a word from most of them. They might counter by arguing that they said their farewells in private but they could have done with making it public, as Kelly Brown and Rory Lawson did. Al Kellock spoke powerfully in the aftermath of the game on Saturday about why it was the players’ fault and not Robinson’s but, mostly, there has been silence from the 
dressing room.

On his Twitter feed, Max Evans said he would use the pain of defeat in Aberdeen and take it into next year’s Six Nations. Evans is assuming he’s going to get there – and therein, perhaps, lies part of the problem. In the past, Scotland achieved greatness not on the back of a plethora of men who had the skills of world class players but because of men who had the mentality of world class players, men who took nothing for granted, whose rage for victory was immense, whose dedication to the cause was frightening, players who would allow Jim Telfer to run them into the ground and abuse them verbally just so they could wear the jersey. ­Players who could beat more talented teams through the force of their will.

Telfer’s mantra was that however hard the opposition worked, his players would work harder. However much they wanted victory, his team wanted it more. Robinson was that type of player himself. Reared in the hardest of rugby clubs at Bath of the 1980s, Robinson was a winner, surrounded by winners. He tried to instil a mental toughness into the Scotland camp but he couldn’t do it and the ultimate illustration of 
his failure was that grotesque performance in Aberdeen.

Afterwards, seemingly, he told the players some home truths and maybe that is why not many of them felt inclined to publicly voice their sorrow at seeing him depart. Maybe they were in some kind of strop. Instead, they tweeted nonsense. Or didn’t tweet at all.

Robinson’s frustration was easy to see and easy to understand. These Scottish players are decent. There is talent in this team, no question. You don’t beat South Africa and Australia and Argentina in Argentina (twice) if you don’t have something. You don’t go to Dublin and beat a good Irish side if you’re as useless as the performance in Aberdeen would lead you to believe. They’re not Six Nations contenders but they are better than wooden-spoonists, better than two wins in 15 Six Nations games going back three years. Or they should be, if they weren’t such a mental soft touch so often.

Robinson has gone and his captain, Brown, was right when saying last week that the players need to take a long and hard look at themselves in the mirror before the start of the Six Nations. Somebody else will be in charge by then, either permanently or an interim basis. And so the job of toughening these guys up mentally falls to a new man. It’s a Herculean task but it’s do-able, if they get the right bloke. History – recent history, at that – tells us that underperforming teams can be turned around just when you think there is no hope, so long as the coach is right and the set-up is good and the laziness and the moping is run out of the place.

The example is Wales and the awful state they were in before Warren Gatland came in and sorted them out. Gatland is tough and clever and the pity is that he is not available. Consider the plight of Wales before he fetched-up with his hard-nosed Kiwi wisdom in time for the 2008 Six Nations, a season that saw Wales win the Grand Slam. Wales had been knocked out of the World Cup by Fiji the previous autumn. They’d lost four of five in the Six Nations, including losses to Scotland and Italy. The previous season, they’d finished fifth in the Six Nations. They were demoralised. There was talk of in-fighting. Nobody had any hope at all. Then a guy who knew what he was doing came on to the scene, rid the dressing room of its blame culture and set them on their way. They have since won another Grand Slam under Gatland.

There are not too many Gatlands, it’s true. But let’s put a limit on the amount of navel-gazing we’re doing. Yes, there is legitimate debate about the way rugby is coached in Scotland and the absence of pressure games at a younger age and how the loss of a third professional team is damaging the big picture and many other things. All valid and all worthwhile talking points. But there remains, in this space at any rate, a conviction that this Scottish team is capable of an awful lot more if the appointment of the new coach is the right one.

It’s not just the technical that needs addressing. It’s the mental. The changing of a culture, so that Scotland never again has to see a player trotting out some kind of hard luck story after a loss to Tonga. Telfer’s time has gone, but the bloody-minded ethos he created is timeless. And we should think about that.