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My time in Ulster shaped me: ex-All Black Robertson

 

By Jonathan Bradley

If anyone ever doubts the truth in retired school teacher David Heron's story of the time a future All Black spent living in his family's spare room, all he has to do is walk them out to the garage of his Greyabbey home.

It is there, nestled among the paint pots, old toolboxes and lawnmower, where a dusty pair of Scott Robertson's rugby boots still sit.

The size 12s are the lingering evidence of how the 23-times-capped Kiwi, and now coach of Super Rugby's most successful side, briefly called County Down home during his teenage years, a tale that seems even more unlikely when you consider that, after missing the registration deadline for the All-Ireland League, he was turning out for Ards RFC's seconds throughout the spell.

The temporary move was arranged through Heron - a man who made a career in education but whose passion for rugby saw him fill roles from player to president at Ards - and a friend at Robertson's school in New Zealand.

For the then 19-year-old surfing-obsessed boy from the Bay of Plenty, a stone's throw from where current Ulster and Ireland star Jared Payne calls home, it was the first big move in a rugby life that would later take in France and Japan.

Looking back with fond memories, the man who will lead Crusaders into today's Super Rugby final against the Lions cites his months in the peninsula as a pivotal period in his fledgling career.

"It was great craic as you guys would call it," recalls the 43-year-old, who now lives in Christchurch with his wife Jane and their three boys aged 13, 11 and nine.

"I was a pretty naive young Kiwi lad and I grew up pretty quickly when I got there.

"I'll be honest, it wasn't the highest quality of rugby but it made me tougher. The travel, being away from home, meeting some really good people. David and his wife Ann were like a mum and dad to me.

"The time I was there, the people I met, it inspired me.

"I wanted to go home, play for the All Blacks and see even more of the world.

"I remember even now going home on the plane and writing a letter to my mum and dad saying that one day I'd be an All Black and be back there to play against Ireland."

In 2001, he did just that, turning out at Lansdowne Road and helping New Zealand come from behind to win a contest that also marked the Test debut of a certain Richie McCaw.

By then, Robertson had already earned his 'Razor' nickname - the product of his tough tackling, even if he admits he probably coined the moniker himself - and was showing plenty of the character that has made him a favourite coach of journalists in search of a good quote.

Whether it's his break-dancing in celebration of a big win or, as he admitted to Rugby World last month, that his biggest phobia is missing out on a party, he is an individual who could never be described as the product of a coaching cookie cutter.

It should be no surprise, then, that, as Heron remembers, "he got straight into the swing of things down at Ards and all the boys quickly had a lot of time for him".

With a chuckle, Robertson adds that, after belatedly developing a taste for one local delicacy - pints of Guinness - any longer at the club and he may have lost his rugby player's physique for good.

"There was a Welsh fella that would take me to training every night and you'd always have to stop at the pub on the way back for a sort of training debrief," he says. "When it started off I couldn't stand Guinness and I'd be the one sat there with my pint of lager. By the end of my time, though, I loved it.

"I went over to Ireland as a pretty fit, athletic bloke and came back the exact opposite.

"I remember I arrived back into New Zealand for the first time and the boys took one look at me and thought I was sick or something.

"It was a real reminder for me that it had been the good life I was living over there.

"The lesson was balance, I suppose you'd say."

If the Ards experience was formative, there was certainly one aspect of his life here he quickly found wasn't for him.

As his host recalls: "I told him I would sort out a job... I just didn't say what it was."

And so, through Heron's son-in-law, a stint on a building site in the middle of a particularly wet Northern Irish winter was secured.

"Aww jeez, they had me as a hodman," Robertson says, a note of horror still in his voice.

"Doing that really did inspire me to be a rugby player. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done.

"I tell you, it was January when I got over and it felt like it rained for three weeks.

"There was mud everywhere and you were needing to put planks down just to get the wheelbarrows around the site.

"I remember it took me about a month to learn how to mix the cement right and then, just as I had, I was going along the plank when I slipped and sent it everywhere, all over the place.

"A 19-year-old young fella from New Zealand just standing in this mess and all the Irish fellas watching. One just said to me, 'well, you better clean that up sharpish'.

"It nearly broke me. Thank God I could tackle, that's all I can say."

And coach too, of course.

Having retired from playing in 2007, he was given his big chance a year later by former Munster boss Rob Penney, then in charge of Canterbury.

Coming on board as an assistant originally, Robertson soon had the top gig and was delivering a title while also leading the New Zealand Under-20s to World Championship glory in 2015.

Break-dancing naturally followed, and so too did the coaching job at a Crusaders side containing the likes of All Black superstars Kieran Read, Israel Dagg and Sam Whitelock.

With the expectation for victory ever-present, Robertson has equipped himself well in his first season, losing only one game en route to today's final, as well as once to the British and Irish Lions back in June.

Now, though, he faces the most significant challenge of his coaching career as his side aim to beat the Lions in Ellis Park and become the first Kiwi side to win a Super Rugby title on the other side of the Indian Ocean.

"If we win, it's probably the biggest in our history," he says.

"Going over there and beating a South African team, it would be some achievement.

"For us, it's been a long time since '08. We're an extremely successful side so nine years is a lot. That's the culture of the Crusaders.

"We've given ourselves an opportunity and hopefully now we can execute. It really would be a massive win for us."

Thankfully for the players, while their coach never quite mastered the art of laying the foundations for houses, he knows all about building a winning rugby team.

Belfast Telegraph

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