Robinson enjoying his voyage of discovery with Romania

Andy Robinson has led both England and Scotland into Six Nations battle over the years but on Saturday he will begin a very different mission, as head coach of Romania.

Previously at this time of year, Andy Robinson would have been preparing sides to run out in the familiar surroundings of Twickenham, the Stade de France, Murrayfield and so on.

However, on Saturday he gets to experience the Rugby Europe Championship for the first time, in the bustling Georgian capital of Tbilisi, a city that hankers to be a Six Nations destination in the not-too-distant future.

As experiences go, a match-up against the most dominant force in the competition’s history, in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of fans, is not a bad way for Robinson to start his reign as Romania’s new head coach.

Daunting yes, but hopefully inspiring too.

“I’m looking forward to seeing that (the crowd). When I coached Edinburgh in the PRO14, it was great for me to go to places like Ravenhill, as it was known then, and hear the songs of the Ulstermen, and to go to places like Munster and experience the different cultures that I hadn’t experienced as a player and coach for Bath," he told World Rugby.

“To go to Georgia now will be really exciting to see what Tbilisi is like.”

Uncharted waters

It will be a voyage of discovery all round for the former tearaway England, Lions and Bath flanker, who has yet to see any of his players in competitive action because of the country’s harsh winter.

He has observed them, though, at close hand during a warm-weather, week-long training camp in Turkey.

“I’ve been very pleased with the attitude of the players and the important thing for me is that they’re working hard and there’s a good team spirit. We’re looking at how we can put together a performance against Georgia," he said.

“It’s a tough one. The players haven’t actually played any rugby since the end of November because there haven’t been any games through December and January as the pitches are frozen. It’s going to be like a first match after a pre-season.

“Matches between Georgia and Romania are really physical games. Also, Romania haven’t scored a lot of points over the last 10 years against Georgia, so we’ll have to make sure our defence is really good.

“I’m going in with my eyes wide open. Next year is the qualification for the World Cup so for me it’s about seeing the players, see how they work in training and whether they can put what we do in training into the matches, and also seeing how they meet the challenge of five games in seven weeks.”

Itchy feet

Robinson, now 55, had two years in charge of England between 2004-06, having been an assistant to Sir Clive Woodward, before coaching Scotland for three years from 2009.

After leaving English club side Bristol in 2016, he spent some time recharging the batteries before looking for his next challenge.

“I was starting to get itchy feet and wanted to be back involved again,” he admitted. “So a couple of years ago I emailed (World Rugby Chairman) Bill Beaumont to see if there were any opportunities to coach tier two nations.

“Bill replied with his thanks, but I didn’t hear anything until last August when he telephoned out of the blue from a World Rugby conference.

“He’d been speaking to Alin Petrache, the new president of the Romanian Rugby Federation, and had dropped my name into the conversation and wanted to know if I was still interested.

“My wife Sam and I travelled over to Bucharest and we went to take a look at the facilities and saw the new stadium that’s being built.

“Bucharest is a lovely city and I’ve enjoyed some positive experiences of Romania in the past, and we all got on well together and agreed to give it a go.”

Slow recovery

Robinson’s first experience of Romanian rugby came when the all-conquering Bath team he played for and captained put 60 points on the touring Romanians at The Rec in 1990.

A decade on, he and Brian Ashton went over to Bucharest to do some coaching of Romania’s age-grade sides on behalf of the Rugby Football Union.

Romanian rugby was at a low ebb then, but its nadir came the following year when an Oaks team featuring Petrache at number eight and current team manager, Bogdan Munteanu, was dismantled 134-0 at Twickenham. Debutant Charlie Hodgson scored an incredible 44 points that day.

Now his task is to build on the good work of his predecessor, Lynn Howells, and breathe new life back into Romanian rugby.

“They were very strong in the ‘80s but with the revolution Romanian rugby has slipped a bit. It is going to be tough, but rugby is still an important part of people’s lives, they still love their rugby, and if the team can get some success, the supporters will come back, I’m sure, particularly with the new stadium.”

The new stadium is currently being built on the site of the Romania national team’s existing home, the Arcul de Triumf, and will house just over 8,000 seated spectators.

The complex, which will also include a hotel and training and medical facilities with a hybrid main pitch, is due to be completed in June and will be used as a training venue for football’s Euro 2020 Championship.

“There's a real desire, led by Alin Petrache, to put Romanian rugby in the shop window again," Robinson said.

“Bucharest is developing as a city, and for rugby fans, it’s going to be a great place to come and visit.”

High tempo

While Robinson knows the about-turn in fortunes won’t happen overnight, the speed of Romania’s game is one area he is trying to quicken up.

“Our backs coach is Sosene Anesi, a Samoan who won an All Blacks cap in 2005, and he is one of the fittest 38-year-olds on the planet, plus our two more experienced players – Florin Vlaicu and the scrum-half Florin Surugiu –have great work ethics and are both very fit. They are setting the tone.

“All the tier two sides have got to look to start playing the game quicker. If you want to compete with tier one sides, you need to be able to get back off the ground and get back in support and get in position quickly.

“You hear stories about Japan in their training camps, how they trained at a higher level than a lot of tier one sides, and look what they achieved at the World Cup.

“Rugby needs countries like Romania, Russia and Georgia to be strong, as well as the likes of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Spain, Portugal, USA and Canada, for us to continue to grow the game."