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'There aren't too many 27-year-old Irishmen coaching in New Zealand schools'

Ian Robinson is part of the backroom team at St Andrew’s College in Christchurch.

WHENEVER 27-YEAR-OLD Irishman Ian Robinson is feeling homesick, he plays the video his dad sent him of a Serena Williams ad that ends with the slogan ‘It’s only crazy until you do it.’

It’s a phrase that reminds Robinson he’s pursuing his dream of eventually being a professional rugby coach and that the thought of travelling to New Zealand to pursue his dream seemed crazy until he did it.

IMG_2127 Robinson with one of the St Andrew's players.

Robinson packed in his job with Sherry FitzGerald earlier this year and is now part of the coaching staff that has guided St Andrew’s College in Christchurch into the semi-finals of the UC Championship – a big achievement for the school.

“We’ve actually brought that saying in here,” says Robinson. “We as a coaching group stood up in front of the players and each of us presented on what it means to us to be here. It was quite emotional.

“I showed the players a picture of my five best mates, a photo of us in the snow two years ago. I had the phrase, ‘It’s only crazy until you do it,’ to show I didn’t think I’d end up in New Zealand coaching and I think the players really got it.

“They didn’t think they’d be in the top four of this competition but we’ve done that and it’s not crazy now.”

Robinson has been involved in coaching since the age of 14 at his home club of St Mary’s College RFC, starting off laying out cones for the U13s team and staying with a successful group that included Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan and David Aspil through to U19 level.

Robinson says he was a “pretty average player” but coaching fascinated him and he caught the bug, graduating into roles as backs coach for Mary’s U20s and head coach of the club’s women’s team, as well as coaching in Dublin’s Hospitals Cup.

He ticked off his Leinster coaching courses up to Level 3, but felt he could learn more – and see some of the world – by getting abroad. New Zealand was naturally the first thought.

St Mary’s man Brent Pope helped him to get a role as backs coach with the U20 side of Marist Albion RFC in Christchurch. Taking a leap into the unknown, Robinson arrived in New Zealand in March and soon found himself head coaching the Marist ‘Colts’ when their new Argentinian head coach was denied entry to the country at the border.

Robinson admits he “struggled a little bit” after a good start at Marist but took another leap by emailing local private school St Andrew’s when they were looking to add to their coaching team ahead of the UC Championship season. After some back and forth, the Irishman was called in.

“I’ve never experienced the level of detail they went into with the interview! I was asked about rugby philosophies, what rep team I had coached, what level I had played at. I basically just asked for a chance, even though they didn’t know me, and that was the best thing I did.

IMG_2598 St Andrew's have earned a semi-final spot after an excellent season.

“I got a text that night inviting me to a training camp over Easter. I arrived at 7am for the bus and they told me to use the weekend to prove I could add value. I jumped on this bus half-thinking, ‘What am I doing here so far away from home and not knowing anyone?’”

But Robinson survived after being thrown in at the deep end, doing enough to convince St Andrew’s to take him on as backs coach of their 1st XV [the equivalent of Schools Senior Cup in Ireland].

He has based himself in the school full-time since, working 9-5 hours for $200 a week rather than getting another job on the side, in order to fully immerse himself in the experience.

Robinson is thoroughly enjoying learning from head coach Deacon Manu, the former Chiefs, Scarlets and Fiji prop.

“He’s really calm and composed, very thoughtful and detailed. He gives me a lot of scope to do what I do. It was hard coming in after they had done their pre-season already but he says, ‘you’re here for a reason.’”

Manu is big on the kind of ‘themeing’ that the Crusaders also use in their culture under Scott Robertson. This year, the Christchurch school’s theme has been based around Scottish heritage and broken up into eight mini-themes.

The first of those was ‘weave the web’ during pre-season, involving imagery around spiders and “understanding how everything works together to make a stronger web.”

Early in the UC Championship, the ‘smash and grab’ theme focused on starting the competition fast, which St Andrew’s did by getting on a winning run that extended to 10 games until two defeats to big-hitters Christchurch Boys’ High and Christ’s College.

Language and body language are big focuses at St Andrew’s too.

“Something as simple as if it’s a bad day where it’s raining, we say, ‘We love the rain!’” says Robinson. “We’ll shout that as we run out to training and it’s silly but it’s powerful.

“Another thing we say is, ‘Keep smiling.’ The lads call me a crazy Irishman who keeps smiling but now we have guys writing this on their strapping. Our 13 writes it on his knee so when he looks down in a match he remembers.”

22392f1f-2500-490a-a6f0-7f83390add18 'Keep Smiling' has become a mantra for the team.

One of the key responsibilities for Robinson St Andrew’s is analysis, reviewing performances and previewing what the opposition will bring.

Robinson has been fortunate that All Blacks analyst Brian ‘Aussie’ McLean is associated with the school and has become “an unofficial mentor,” giving him pointers in this important area of the game.

Robinson sends the other coaching staff a four-page document on the opposition at the start of each week focusing on restarts, set-piece attack, set-piece defence, general movement in attack and defence, and anything else unique to that team.

The chance to work with individual players on their games using video footage has also been rewarding for Robinson.

“We told our halfback that if he could touch the ball a second time in the play, he would score a try. He hadn’t really run those positive lines after he passed the ball but we worked on it and I showed him video of TJ Perenara because he’s very good at it. He scored two tries the following game.”

Robinson used the two-week winter holidays to attend a coaching course at the International Rugby Academy of New Zealand, where former Connacht assistant Dave Ellis facilitated a jam-packed schedule that included presentations from and workshops with the likes of Graham Henry, Piri Weepu, and Hurricanes boss John Plumtree.

“One module was to profile the Hurricanes squad based on the Bulls quarter-final and present the team profile to John Plumtree, which was daunting enough, and then put together a game plan for the Crusaders semi-final based on that team profile,” says Robinson, who lauds the “phenomenal” Ellis.

The main focus is on St Andrew’s now, though, with one regular-season game remaining before they head into the semi-finals of the UC Championship hopeful of earning what was seen as an unlikely title at the start of the season.

The money Robinson saved up to coach full-time in New Zealand is beginning to dry up but, having been asked to work at St Andrew’s again next year, he’s looking at ways to prolong the experience.

IMG_2504 St Andrew's are hoping to secure the UC Championship.

“My foot is in the door, I’m in an incredible environment. The next step would be to try and stay for another season.

“There are challenges in it. I’ve packed in my job at home and I’m getting paid $200 a week, which fixes up the rent, but you’ve got to figure out a way to make money while still putting in that effort with coaching.

“I want to be a career coach, I want to work in a professional environment and I’m trying to make it as professional as possible now. You have to be ready for the opportunity if it comes.

“For me to get to where I want to be, you might have to do something leftfield. There aren’t too many 27-year-old Irishmen coaching in New Zealand schools. I want my CV to stand out from others and that’s what’s driving me.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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