‘It’s about having fun’: Scott Robertson, the coach behind the Crusaders’ unbeaten start

Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson took the reins as the Crusaders head coach at the end of last season. So far his Super Rugby coaching record reads: 12 wins, no draws, no losses. Scotty Stevenson caught up with him in Fiji last week to talk about his coaching philosophy ahead of the Crusaders’ Friday night match against the Chiefs.

Scotty Stevenson: Razor, 11-0… talk me through that start to the season.

Scott Robertson: If you look at every game in context it’s been off the back of a lot of adversity I suppose with injuries and coming from behind in a number of games. We didn’t have a lot of rhythm in our game early for a number of reasons but we found a way, obviously got ourselves quite tight, and then put in a good roll of results. So all in context it’s been great until now but like I say to everyone, everyone remembers the last game you played, not the first eleven. So that’s what we’re building to.

Let’s go back before the season even started. You had a great playing career which most people are aware of, which you parlayed into coaching – first at Sumner in club rugby in Christchurch, then into Canterbury where you enjoyed some title success, and New Zealand U20s as well, winning a world championship. When the Crusaders job came along, a team you’d had a great history with, were there nerves for you taking on a job of this magnitude in a career that is still by world coaching standards very youthful and young?

Ah… I suppose 42 is youthful and young, as long as my wife says that as well I’m happy. But for me… When I had my interview I said to the panel: you know me, so go and ask the players if I’m the right person. If the players want me, great; if they don’t, I’m not the right person. Because I’ve played for them, I’ve coached next door with Canterbury for a long time, I’ve got a personal relationship with all of them…

So you technically put the players in charge of your appointment?

[Laughs] Or I asked them to see if they wanted me. I think the interview panel knew what I could bring, I’m fortunate to have had a bit of success as a coach and building teams, but then that next step up, to get the trust and support of the players is really important. Because they know me, there’s no secrets here and that gave me a lot of confidence coming into my first year because it basically said to me the players are in and it was about me getting my coaching staff and my management group right.

Crusaders vs Blues (Photo: Getty Images)

I wanted to talk to you about that before we talk about your own personal coaching philosophies. Because so many young coaches would look around and find a true veteran of the coaching world to come and help them out, we’ve seen that through other franchises. You didn’t. You picked Jason Ryan, you picked Leon McDonald, you picked Brad Moore… it’s got to be one of the youngest coaching groups in Super Rugby, if not the youngest. Why was it important to you to take on those guys and what were the qualities you saw in them that they could add to this team?

I think the whole group – coaching and management – is really important. Firstly I’d coached with Leon and he’s world class. He’s young of age but old in wisdom and his delivery is incredible. I had a lot of success with him with the New Zealand U20, he’s a good mate and I trust him. Jason Ryan, other than being a quality human, he’s bloody good at his job and works really really hard. He’s got amazing trust and a connection with the players. To be fair there’s not many set piece scrum and line out experts out there, and he was right there so I didn’t have to look too far. And then Brad Moore was on the current staff and I wanted a bit of continuity; he’s a very astute man who brings a lot both on and off the field. His background in risk management and as a lawyer is incredible, the way he processes things is a bit different to everyone else. He’s always looking, like the boys do, to potential risks, and asks lots of questions.

The other thing, the second part to it, is the management group in general. It was the biggest change in Crusaders history since 1996 so we had a number of staff, I think it was six new staff in the background… I was fortunate to come in with a real clear vision of what I would have liked and have managed to complete that.

Let’s talk about what you like, because we’ve followed your career and followed your teams, and one thing that is similar with every team you’re involved in is everyone seems to be having fun. There’s a massive amount of energy, you never see a kid with a frown on his face when you walk past, I’ve never seen you low on energy…. is that fundamentally what you’re about as a coach? The guy who’s up all the time?

Yeah I think there’s a little bit of my personality rubbing off, that’s what the boys say. I think it’s really important. My dad gave me a bit of advice when I first started playing for Canterbury and the Crusaders. He said “be yourself,” and I’ve continued to do that, and made sure other people do the same. I’m not big on fear ruling, I want to make sure that we enjoy it, we have fun, and people want to come to work and engage to be better. So there are a lot of things – I always theme my campaigns, always make sure we connect as a group every day in a different way. There’s always a part of the day that’s not dedicated to rugby, it’s about having fun. We have mini group challenges, we had sing-offs, we have food challenges… it’s endless how you can have fun.

The other thing is I’m really big on families being involved and understanding what we do, how we do it, when we do it and what we’re about. So if you’re playing for us your family’s with us as well. That includes the kids, and I pride myself on knowing all their names and making sure they come in. We have inductions of players, we also have inductions of partners and families to our group so when they go home they understand what we’re going through. I think all those things end up creating an atmosphere that people want to be a part of.

You and I go back a fair way, since you finished your playing career and did some work with us at Sky, and I think I said to you then you’re like Peter Pan. And nothing’s really changed. Do you think one of the strengths you have is that people underestimate you? You look like the surfy boy from Mount Maunganui, you talk in a very distinct way, you have a very distinct manner which is probably not as conservative as a lot of coaches… do you think people look at you sometimes and underestimate how clever you are as a coach?

People have started saying that to me recently. Obviously the Super Rugby role is a lot more public and a little bit more about me as a person so people are starting to question it more now, and I’ve started questioning people asking me that question [laughs]. Hence I say you know about my philosophy, it’s just being myself, and people trust me and want to play. Not many players have left since I’ve contracted them and that makes me really proud, it’s a good sign. But do people underestimate me? Maybe not now.

Coach Robertson (Photo: Getty Images)

I wouldn’t think so. We spoke after the Hurricanes game last Saturday and we talked about a couple of guys in particular, and the names that kept coming up were the young guys, the likes of George Bridge, Quinten Strange, Jack Goodhue… I would put it to you that over a long period of time the Crusaders have had some very tall trees, and tall trees cast very big shadows. You seem to have kept a lot of the veterans but made sure that the canopy is clear and these guys have room to grow. Would I be on pretty safe ground if I said that’s been a driver of yours since Day 1?

Great metaphor. Metaphor? Analogy? One of the two… Anyway, outstanding. It’s twofold how that’s happened. Through injury, players have had opportunities and performed, and then the way it’s worked out a lot of the U20s boys that I coached have come through and performed. So all those guys you mentioned, even David Havili was in the U20s, so I had an existing connection with them and a lot of trust so through circumstances they’ve had the opportunity to come through. Something I’m really proud of with this Crusaders squad is guys that have worn the jersey before prepare the next guy as if they were in that jersey as well. That handing down of the knowledge, the information, the tidbits, and how much they care makes me really proud. These guys take it as a real honour to hand down that information.

But also, you’ve got to earn that jersey. One of the things about this team that I think has sustained its success over a long period of time is that Corey Flynn was never going to give his jersey to a Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett was never going to give his jersey to a Joe Moodie, they had to earn it. So while they all get on, there’s always that concept of earning that start, earning your time in the jumper.

Yeah, and giving them every chance to succeed when they do get that opportunity to go out there, so you’re not setting them up to fail in any way. We train and train hard … I’ve also put a lot of work into leadership, obviously Sam Whitelock is incredible for us and there’s a lot of the other leaders as well. So it’s about making sure that I’ve got a good relationship with them so they drive it.

Was that intentional, to look at someone like Sam Whitelock, someone who – I’m not saying this would happen – but would be at risk of saying it’s more important to me to be playing for the All Blacks than for the Crusaders. To give someone the leadership role like that in this team, does that give you some assurance that he’s going to put this team first always?

That’s why I made him the captain, and his other couple of brothers that I’ve had as captains – I know the Whitelock way and have had a lot of success with them, and I was really clear that our relationship was really important. And he jumped at [the captaincy]. He’s a really proud Crusader and an extremely proud All Black so whatever the campaign he’ll deliver. And it’s a different voice. Reado’s been superb off the field too, the balance of our leadership group is right so they can continue to keep pushing themselves.

Kieran Read (Photo: Getty Images)

Do you find that the reaction to this team has changed in any way over the years? Or is it always just business as usual with the Crusaders – the boys will play a certain way, they’ll carry themselves in a certain fashion, the fans will support them in a certain way?

There’s Crusader values that have been there forever. I think you’d remember back in ’96, I was an original Crusader and we came last. I remember all the things that went wrong, and was fortunate to be very successful after that and remember everything that went right, you know, going 3-0. So those things have stood the test of time which I’m really proud of. But I think it’s really important when you come in as a coach to a new environment that you know what you’re about and keep what’s good. I think one thing with the Crusaders is it always identifies us as good men and people are going to work really hard and care. And filling a stadium, there’s no better way for us to realise that the fans care. If they’re coming along and they want to watch us play then that means they care as well.

You’re a lot of fun to be around, you’re known for your breakdancing after victories and planting flags in the middle of someone else field and all of those things that have gone along with your career. But underneath all of that, underneath all the jocularity and the laughs and the energy, talking to your boys they said you’re brutally honest with them. Is it important to you as well to balance it up… if a guy’s not bringing the energy, if a guy’s not working hard enough, you’ve gotta tell him?

There’s different forms of honesty and there’s different forms of truth. And I think you’ve got to know your player to talk about what they need to hear at that particular time. I think that’s something I’m really good at. But I’m doing it for them to be better. So I tell ’em I love ’em and tell them that they need to be better. And I think they get it and they like that. They don’t want to be dropped or hear second hand or have it be unclear to them. I always say to my group, if you’ve got an issue you’ve got to whinge up. No whinging down. If there’s an issue it’s my problem as the leader. I solve issues. It becomes my problem and I can get a solution to it. If you whinge down it ends up being a spiral effect. If you’ve got an issue go to someone above you. If you don’t I can’t help and thats when you get a team environment where people don’t have that trust.

I think trust is a word which really suits you as a coach and certainly the team at the moment. As we mentioned earlier, through injury or otherwise, guys have been given a chance this season. For example Wyatt Crockett on 100,000 games for the Crusaders, he’s quite happy to see a David Havili, a George Bridge, a Quentin Strange – whoever’s out there – he’s loving what they’re doing. That to me is the ultimate in trust, when a guy who’s been around for 12 years backs a guy who’s been around one year to go out and do the job.

Yeah, and the integration of it is something that’s been handed down. It’s like a family, you’ve got the old man on the rocking chair telling you all his stories about life and how things work. Probably a perfect person to do it is Wyatt Crockett. But they’re proud because that guy has done well and they’ve prepared him to perform and play well. That’s an environment that you’re proud of and people see that.

Finally, I want to take you to a parallel universe, one in which you’re 0-11 at this stage in the season. How would you cope as a coach and especially as a young coach in his first year of Super Rugby if you were at a very different point at this stage in the season?

[Deep breath] Wow, this is real deep. A different universe… I’m not sure. At the start of the year we sat down as coaches and shared how we deal with pressure, whats our type, and for me I still really really put an emphasis on trusting people so I don’t become all-encompassing and take over and become the dictator, that’s not my style. But I’d still like to think all my players would still say I’m honest, would still be coming in and having fun, because if they don’t want to come in and have fun and enjoy it we’re not going to play well anyway. One fortunate thing is I’ve been in a lot of teams that have had a lot of success so I understand what it feels like. So… I wouldn’t be 0-11 for a starter.

I thought you were going to say that, because you are of a certain mind, you would refuse to be there, you wouldn’t let yourself.

Not at all. There’d have to be heaps of stuff that was out of your control and if it was out of your control you’d just try to put it in context and move on, try to create the next opportunity for yourself to move forward as a group.

What’s most important to you: wins, or being liked?

Ahh… that’s a good question. I’ve never really thought about it that way. I prepare a rugby team to perform. If people like me doing it, great. If they don’t then it’s them not me. I don’t know if that answers your question. Can I be liked and win? [laughs]


This interview was originally published on RugbyPass.com

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