Scott Robertson has just led the Crusaders to their fourth straight title, their success in New Zealand’s Aotearoa competition coming off the back of a hat-trick of Super Rugby wins.
When he became head coach in 2017, the Christchurch-based team had gone nine years without silverware. So how did he transform a supremely talented group of players from under-achievers into winners?
Of course, it helped that Robertson knew the Crusaders inside and out as an organisation, having played for them for eight seasons and then going on to coach feeder club Canterbury in the Mitre Cup.
However, the former All Black, capped 23 times either side of the Millennium, has expertly put his own spin on how to get the best out of his players.
In his Sky Sports podcast, England Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Will Greenwood lavished praise on his Barbarians co-coach in 2018.
“Positivity oozes out of every vessel. He’s the sort of bloke, I promise you, you could give him a pub team and he’d have a go at winning the World Cup,” Greenwood, son of former England head coach, Dick Greenwood, said.
“Give him a bunch of players who want to get better and turn up with some enthusiasm and he will lead them into the Promised Land,” Greenwood said.
Improving players, even ones as good as centre Jack Goodhue, a member of his New Zealand World Rugby U20 Championship-winning 2015 team, is his raison d'être. Crusaders game-plans invariably maximise the talent at his disposal and bring out the best in his players.
“I want players to be All Blacks, not just All Blacks but great All Blacks,” Robertson told Greenwood.
Passionate about coaching
Robertson’s self-titled nickname of ‘Razor’ could easily come from his razor-sharp understanding of people and tactics, rather than the real reason – his ferocious tackling as a player.
“I was always a coach in the back of my mind,” he said.
“Gordon Tietjens (former Bay of Plenty) really flogged you, he was a tough coach, but he put me in a good mindset. I always had a playbook, moves that I thought could work, so I always had a passion for it; I was always trying to be creative with how we could get the team together off the field to connect.
“I love rugby and the more I was around it, the better I felt.”
As someone who is dyslexic, the written word has never been Robertson’s strong point but he has few peers when it comes to getting his message across verbally.
Revisiting the theme of positivity highlighted by Greenwood, Robertson turns negative situations into opportunities through his clever use of language. It enables him to convey what he wants from his players in a concise and understandable manner.
“We use ‘do’ not ‘don’t; we say ‘hold your depth’ rather than ‘don’t go early’; we say ‘catch everything’ rather than ‘don’t drop a ball’; we say ‘keep your eyes up’ rather than ‘don’t look down’. It is a really simple way of getting our message across.”
Robertson is always looking for his teams to adapt and evolve, drawing on his experiences of playing lower-level rugby in Ireland, and with Perpignan in France, as well as the reams of knowledge he gained while coached by Tietjens, Robbie Deans, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen.
Recently, he and former England head coach, British & Irish Lions contender and current Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster shared ideas about each other’s attack and defence via Zoom calls.
The discussion focused on the premise that they were preparing their teams to face the other, in a fantasy fixture, which one day might become reality, between the top teams in the southern and northern hemisphere.
Such trust is admirable, and Robertson is equally generous in that respect when it comes to the team of coaches that he builds around him.
Unsurprisingly for one so free-spirited, micro-management is not on his agenda.
“I am a great starter not a tremendous finisher with regards to a lot of detailed work so I hire people who are finishers. I know what I want, and I can sign it off, but I get bored easily.
“This lockdown, I am bored, there is so much order; I need chaos, I need action and things going on. But I know my strengths and I get people around me to help me. I’ve had some amazing staff over time who are experts at their jobs,” he told Greenwood.
Charismatic and creative with his story-telling, Robertson then sets sail with an analogy that draws comparisons between captaining a ship and being head coach of a rugby team.
“The word leadership actually comes from back in the day when people used to lead ships because that’s how you used to go anywhere. ‘We’re off to America, let’s go!’
“You have someone in the engine room, someone navigating, someone on the spot line looking for icebergs, guys who are world-class at their jobs.
“When a storm comes in, do I get jittery and go down to the engine room and start doing his job? Do I start to look at the navigation? No, I have to trust them and keep connected with good common language. I get the information off them and then I make a decision.”
Pulling no punches
Robertson is brilliant at painting a picture and bringing concepts to life. The way he connects his players to each other and to a common purpose is clearly evident in the support lines and fluidity of attack of the Crusaders.
Robertson credits Mohammed Ali’s famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ world heavyweight bout as the inspiration behind the Crusaders’ maiden Super Rugby title win under his stewardship.
Like Ali, who’d suffered nine fallow years before he fought George Foreman, the Crusaders had been cast as a spent force, but they made the final and defied the odds and most pre-match predictions by winning their own ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ against the Lions in the cauldron-like atmosphere of Ellis Park in Johannesburg
“As soon as you see a picture you get a connection in your head, which connects to feelings. You want people to feel and become emotive, and invest their interest in that common goal,” he said in an interview with 1014 Rugby.
“We changed up our defence. More around knocking people out and more inventive, more aggressive words. We used a lot of our boxing themes.”
Over the years his can-do, innovative approach has continued to reap its rewards.
“We did things that transcended a lot of the things that people thought you couldn’t do – no one had ever crossed the Indian Ocean and won in front of 63,000 people at Ellis Park. Then it was, ‘Razor’ you can’t go back-to-back, those days are gone, ‘there are too many All Blacks, it’s a World Cup year and you can’t do both’.”
Robertson has never been afraid to break the mould whether it’s becoming the first (and only) All Black to come out of Mount Maunganui College or celebrating the World Rugby U20 Championship 2015 win not with the customary handshake and a hug but with some breakdancing – now somewhat of a tradition for the coach.
A bright future, possibly one with the All Blacks beckons, but whatever path ‘the blonde kid from Bay of Plenty’ takes, the players under him will be in for one hell of an enjoyable ride.