During his early years as a player at the Crusaders, Scott “Razor” Robertson would stare forwards coach Peter Sloane in the eye and deliver a succinct message.
Robertson wasn’t interested in bad vibes.
“He always said ‘Sloanie just give me the positives, not the negatives,'” Sloane recalled.
All Blacks team to face Springboks at Ellis Park Stadium, South Africa
That short quote provides a big insight into the attitude that Robertson, the most successful coach in the history of Super Rugby, brings to his workplace. But more on that later.
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Because to understand why Robertson flourished as a coach at the Crusaders and has been touted as the next All Blacks coach, it’s best to rewind to when he was a professional player.
In 1997 and 1998, when the Crusaders had two talented openside flankers in Angus Gardiner and Robertson, it was up to Sloane and head coach Wayne Smith to decide who should wear the No 7 jersey each weekend.
Sloane, an ex-All Blacks hooker, has never forgotten Robertson’s refusal to sulk or desire to not dwell on the bad stuff.
Now, more than 25 years later, the policy of being upbeat and enthusiastic is a crucial part of Robertson’s coaching philosophy. It works. Since his appointment as Crusaders coach in 2017, he has guided the team to six titles.
“It’s a strength and it has shown through,” Sloane says.
“When you think back to those days at the Crusaders, we were a little bit of a rabble really, and there was quite a bit of discipline required to create the culture.
“There was a good cop, and bad cop. I happened to be the bad cop. So sometimes you had to be a little bit tough to get to where you wanted to get quickly. And he (Robertson) was obviously a big part of that.”
Sloane says Robertson’s biggest asset as a player was his willingness to tackle with machine-like efficiency. When the young surfer from Bay of Plenty arrived in Christchurch ahead of the inaugural 1996 Super Rugby season, he had to prove himself in the Mainland.
It became apparent he was diligent, because even then Robertson was scribbling down ideas and carting around a playbook.
Being driven to succeed also meant he had to suffer pain which, in turn, contributed to the decline of his body; he has had eight operations on his right knee, which has forced him to substitute shortboard surfing with stand-up paddle boarding.
“His real strength was probably his defence,” Sloane noted. “He thrived on it. And he hit real hard. He has carried on with that culture, as he has with theming and all that.”
Arguably the most famous theme of Robertson’s coaching tenure at the Crusaders was the one he introduced in 2017: the Rumble in the Jungle, a nod to Muhammad Ali’s epic fight against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, proved the perfect backdrop ahead of the epic win about the Lions in the final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
Robertson played 23 tests for the All Blacks between 1998 and 2002. After winning four titles with the Crusaders he departed after 2003 to play for French club Perpignan until 2006, followed by a stint in Japan.
When he returned to New Zealand he sought the advice of ex-Crusaders coach Robbie Deans, having decided he wanted to learn how to follow in his footsteps.
Deans’ advice was simple: coach as much as you can, and become a specialist in one facet in particular.
So Robertson concentrated on being an expert in defence, and among other things, visited NRL clubs in Australia and coached at rugby camps in the United States.
Friend Rob Penney gave him his first big break, inviting him to work as a defense mentor at Canterbury. That led to Robertson being appointed head coach in 2013, as well as the NZ under-20 coach for several seasons.
Robertson beat Tabai Matson and Dave Hewett as a replacement for Todd Blackadder at Crusaders ahead of the 2017 season, having convinced an appointment panel that included Mark Robinson, now the NZ Rugby chief executive, he could bring silverware back to a cabinet that had been empty since 2008.
By his own admission Robertson is obsessed with rugby. He says he wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about the game, and his ability to network with coaches around the world is legendary.
“No, I don’t really [switch-off from rugby],” Robertson told The Press in 2017.
“In some capacity I am always thinking about it. My wife [Jane] always talks about it. She always knows if I am thinking about recruiting, or a game plan. Or I will be texting someone or using Google to get some meaning behind something.
“It’s just continuous. If it’s not that, then I am just looking at the surf report.”
It doesn’t just stop with rugby.
Robertson is on excellent terms with Melbourne Storm rugby league coach Craig Bellamy, observing training and meetings when in Australia and has also been invited by Sydney Roosters coach Trent Barrett to watch his squad practice.
With the assistance of Jane, Robertson has worked out ways to combat his dyslexia; rather than overload his players with information, he uses bullet points and game plans on maps to convey messages.
On the Will Greenwood podcast, Robertson admitted he needs “chaos”. His attention to detail isn’t the flashest, and he can get bored easily.
As a consequence he relies on assistants, and support staff, to help complete the job.
Robertson can also be brutal. That was evident when he denied prop Wyatt Crockett, the club’s most capped player, a fairytale exit by dropping him for the 2018 final against the Lions in Christchurch. Robertson said he didn’t sleep for two nights before telling Crockett, but he knew the call had to be made.
Being positive is vital, Robertson says and he’s careful to reflect that in his language. Instead of saying “don’t drop the ball”, he tells a player to “catch everything”.
Players say Robertson is genuine and like Deans, he encourages players to come up with an idea after planting the seed in the first instance.
He can also be self-deprecating, and there have been no reports of him blowing-up at his players if their performances don’t meet expectations.
That isn’t to say Robertson doesn’t hate losing. he does. While careful not to bring the players’ mood down, he’s less inclined to be so chipper when away from the squad.
Some of his ideas can be too wacky, and get ditched. Others are embraced.
Robertson is a supporter of a “dotting system”, a precognitive communication training tool, to determine players’ personality traits.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that he’s a purple dot. In other words, someone who has big ideas and is full of enthusiasm.
Being impulsive can also cause headaches for support staff, especially if there’s a request to change carefully laid plans at short notice. The flip side is he gets results.
If Robertson replaces All Blacks coach Ian Foster, he will be determined to surround himself with the support staff.
That’s expected to mean he will ask forwards coach Jason Ryan, who was added to the All Blacks staff after John Plumtree was sacked following the 2-1 series loss to Ireland, Blues coach Leon MacDonald, Hurricanes coach Jason Holland and possibly his Crusaders assistant Scott Hansen to join him.
When Robertson interviewed for the All Blacks job after Sir Steve Hansen retired following the 2019 World Cup, he wanted Ryan, MacDonald and Holland, along with incumbent defense coach Scott McLeod, as his support crew.
It was a two-horse race, and Foster won. The narrative has since changed dramatically. With the All Blacks losing five of their last six tests and sliding to an all-time low of fifth on the World Rugby rankings (prior to the test against the Springboks in Johannesburg on Sunday morning), Robertson is shaping as the logical candidate to reverse the team’s form slump.
If he does replace Foster, he will have less than 13 months to get the side ready for the World Cup in France. There will be plenty to do, including mending the fraying relationship between the players and the NZ Rugby administration.
It also pays to remember that NZ Rugby should be grateful that they are in a position to have Robertson on speed dial, given he considered moving his family to France in 2014 after former French fullback Serge Blanco approached him about a deal with the Biarritz club.
The chance to earn a bigger wage, something the Robertsons considered after the 2011 earthquakes compromised plans to build a house on a section on Scarborough Hill, appealed.
But after mulling the move, and talking with the likes of Hansen and Deans, they elected to stay put.
As a sweetener, Canterbury extended his contract through to 2016 and he remained in the knowledge that NZ Rugby had already appointed him assistant coach to NZ under-20 coach Chris Boyd.
NZ Rugby has also had every reason to appreciate Robertson’s decision to remain loyal, instead of chasing the euros. In addition to being a candidate to replace Foster, he had produced an impressive number of All Blacks and Super Rugby players.
“I had to be pragmatic about this,” Robertson said after declining the offer to coach in France. “There could have been really good short-term gains, but the best option is to stay.”