Bristol Rugby: Was Andy Robinson shown the door too soon?
The former England coach was dumped unceremoniously as Bristol's director of rugby. But with new signings on their way, should he have been given more time?
It is ironic that the Springboks were in London when Andy Robinson lost his job as director of rugby with Bristol – ten years ago it was the South Africans who did for Robinson and his England head coach job.
Robinson might not have been unlucky that time – England had lurched to defeats by New Zealand, Argentina and then the Boks following defeats to France, Scotland and Ireland in the Six Nations – but it looks like he has got the rough end of the deal with Bristol. It smacks of a soccer-style knee-jerk reaction.
Maybe Robinson was seen by Bristol as rugby’s version of Neil Warnock, a bloke who can get you promotion, rather than an oval-ball Sam Allardyce – someone who will keep you up.
The results-based business stuff has been trotted out and after seven rounds of the Premiership Bristol are bottom of the table, seven points adrift of Worcester in 11th. So maybe it was inevitable but, to this observer at least, it doesn’t seem quite right.
You can talk all you like about compensation and pay-offs but Robinson is a rugby man and would probably prefer to be working in the game. He said he was shocked and surprised by Bristol’s decision – after a short suspension – and so were a few of us, although not everyone in the Rugby World office was as surprised.
Robinson joined Bristol in 2013 when they’d had a couple of near-misses at getting back into the Premiership after they were relegated in 2009. The former England flanker got Bristol into the play-offs in 2014 and 2015 before finally getting over the line against Doncaster at the end of last season.
And that is when the trouble started.
Bristol’s second play-off match against Doncaster, that confirmed their promotion, was held on 25 May – nearly six months after most Premiership teams had officially started their recruitment drive for this season.
That shows part of the lunacy of having play-offs in the Championship – if they got shot of them then the team coming up would have a bit more time to sort out recruitment. Bristol won the league by 16 points and were so obviously going to come top that they could have started hunting around in March. But after missing out in the play-offs in previous years, they could not guarantee Premiership rugby to anyone they fancied getting on the books.
Players can officially be approached on 1 January if their contracts are due to be up – although, whisper it quietly, apparently some tapping-up goes on before then.
Robinson did manage to bring in the likes of Jordan Crane from Leicester, Jon Fisher from Northampton, Tusi Pisi from the Sunwolves and a couple of Scarlets in Jordan and Rhodri Williams.
He made a shrewd appointment in giving the club captaincy to Jack Lam and Bristol made an encouraging start with a two-point loss to Harlequins in the double header on the opening day. A crushing 70-22 loss to Wasps in the third round of the Premiership did not bode well and when Sale won 31-13 at Ashton Gate in round six, the writing was on the wall.
Gavin Henson got injured again and Shane Geraghty got crocked too and Robinson was gone – then all of a sudden the signings started appearing.
Jason Woodward is in town, after signing in the summer from the Hurricanes, and the versatile back is set to go straight into the Bristol team this weekend. He is the sort of player – a Super Rugby winner – who can make a real difference at the bottom of the Premiership but Robinson will not be around to feel the benefit.
“I think where I’m from it’s a bit different,” said Woodward. “It seems like a mid-season change in coaches is a bit of football thing – you don’t really get it too much back home.” You don’t get it much up here either, Jason.
And with Robinson out of the door, Bristol fans have been promised two big-name international signings – one of whom is already signed but can’t be named and one who Bristol hope to get over the line shortly. Both will apparently appear in January and may, or may not, include the giant South African lock Eben Etzebeth. Etzebeth will definitely be playing in the Premiership after the autumn Internationals according to Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, it is just a question of where.
Heyneke Meyer, the former South Africa coach, is rumoured to be next in the hot seat and his pulling power will surely bring in some big-name Boks.
Bristol chairman Chris Booy said: “We have a good squad, so we’ll see how it goes. But we’re still very, very confident we will achieve our objective.
“We are not getting the results. We haven’t made contact with anyone as yet but a very interesting group of people have put their hats in the ring.
“We will now start talking to those people and obviously widen the net as broad as we can. This is a big club. Yes, we are in difficult times at the moment, and some of the names are pretty big, but we will take as long as we need to get the right person.”
The new boss will have some decent ammunition at his disposal – Robinson might well wonder what would have happened if he had been fully loaded and given a bit more time.