It was Saturday morning when the text arrived from Robin Hislop explaining why his name was surprisingly absent from the Doncaster XV for the biggest game of their Championship sprint season. “I’ve hurt my back in training,” read the message. “Gutted. Looks like two to three weeks.”
Four days earlier, the loosehead had spoken enthusiastically to RugbyPass about the enticing prospect of packing down against some old friends from Saracens. Hislop had only ever spent six weeks with the Londoners, providing injury cover and making three Gallagher Premiership appearances off the bench to break the monotony of 2020 life on furlough with Doncaster, but it was long enough for ties to bind and Sunday was set up to be quite the Championship fixture.
Saracens failed to make the trip to Castle Park twelve weeks ago, various circumstances meaning they couldn’t raise a matchday squad for a Trailfinders Cup assignment, but they are now heading north to Yorkshire with an XV jammed with household names.
For instance, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Vincent Koch is an opposition front row to get the competitive juices flowing but Hislop will have to watch it all unfold from the sidelines after his untimely backache put an end to his gallop of skippering Doncaster to five straight wins and a position on the tier-two ladder looking down on Saracens who infamously lost their opening round match at Cornish Pirates, a team the Knights beat by two points at the end of March.
“There is massive excitement around the club with the challenge we are facing Sunday and the downside (with the restrictions) is we would have got our biggest crowd for a good few years with the stature and calibre of the player coming to Castle Park. It’s a real shame,” said Hislop about a glamour occasion where the closest the live-streaming local Doncaster fans can get to the action is ordering a takeaway cow pie from the stadium’s catering crew.
— Knightsboy (@JohnBale4) April 16, 2021
It’s six months since Hislop’s fleeting presence in the Saracens ranks concluded with a canter from the bench against Bath in what was the Mark McCall-led club’s final Premiership match before relegation. The memories are still vivid. “Furloughed, Saracens had a few injuries at loosehead so an opportunity came up there. Huge craic. I thoroughly enjoyed it down there.
“There was no pressure. I knew it was only going to be a six, seven-week thing so I just enjoyed it. To train with those lads, to be involved in the build-up to the (European) quarter-final against Leinster, that was awesome, and then I got a couple of games. I managed to go quite well and that Bath game was the highlight for me.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of the club. There is a reason they have been successful. They invest in you as a person, not just a rugby player. There is a real caring attitude there, a real ‘we are going to work hard but we are going to have a good time’. Just the whole culture and the environment.
“Every training session was fun but it was competitive and there is a reason why all those lads stay there for years and years – it’s because they get well looked after. They look after the wives, the kids, the girlfriends. The culture was really enjoyable and it was just nice to be in that environment for a few months.”
If there was a concern for Hislop when it all wrapped up it was that having been inside the Saracens bubble and seeing all that was required in order for rugby to take place during these pandemic times, he feared the Championship might not get going at all due to the extra costs involved due to virus testing and all the rest.
“When I was at Saracens in August, September time we thought we had passed the worst, it was before that second peak. Things were tough. I actually missed out on a game down there because I was contact-traced for someone who tested positive but my biggest worry for the Championship clubs was would they be able to fund it?
“With the end to the Premiership season, there were sometimes two games in a week so that meant two tests and the PCR test was just so expensive. My concern was there would maybe be just three or four clubs that could afford it and you can’t have a league with three or four teams. My worry was the cost essentially.
“It’s amazing it has gone ahead and it is all credit to the clubs, all the physio and medical staff that are having to do all the Covid stuff behind the scenes because it is not just rugby, there is a lot of paperwork and safety checks. From a players’ perspective, it is brilliant.
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? Steve Boden pre-match notes.
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? @Saracens preview
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— Doncaster Knights ? (@DoncasterKnight) April 16, 2021
“The owners and benefactors at Doncaster have been absolutely brilliant. We started back in the first week of November which gave us two, three months of training. That training was initially in small groups so we ticked each box as we went along the stages. The club were brilliant in backing us and saying, ‘We will have rugby here this season’.”
It’s Hislop’s seventh second-tier campaign and he cherishes the opportunity it provides given his hard-working farm upbringing in Scotland and his frustrations at trying to become an Edinburgh regular, a vexation which prompted the 2013/14 loan stint at Rotherham that turned into a reputable career along the highways and byways of the in-the-shadows English league.
“I was working on the farm since I could walk so it definitely had been of some help, throwing hay bales about and mucking sheds out. I’d a great upbringing on the farm and you definitely appreciate hard work so training for three, four hours a day is an absolute dawdle compared to working in the lambing sheds for 15 hours a day. I’m very grateful for that upbringing,” he said before explaining the impulsiveness that brought him south of the border eight years ago.
“I’d been at Edinburgh since I was 17 and I got to 21 and had about 20 games in the first team and the standard was the problem. One week you would be playing club rugby and the next weekend you would be playing Heineken Cup and the jump in standard was massive.
“I was just desperate to play for Edinburgh week in week out and I’d sort of get a game every four weeks. I was just desperate to play pro rugby, which you can’t fault a young fella for wanting to do. I was a little bit impatient and then I broke my leg, came back and was a little further down the pecking order than I wanted.
“I said to my agent I don’t want to play Scottish club rugby, I want to play pro rugby and an option came up to go to Rotherham and I absolutely loved it, a couple of years there playing week in week out which for a front row forward or any young rugby player you need to do to get better as there is only so much training and weights you can do. You just need time in the saddle.
“Playing week in week out, this league is undervalued. It’s a really good standard, especially up front. You can see for yourself the amount of front row forwards that go on to play in higher leagues. It’s a really tough league, so I just enjoy that attritional battle and trying to get better.”
Hislop is all the more grateful for the way the Championship didn’t forget him when he was at his lowest ebb in 2017 and on into the following year. A serious shoulder injury coincided with the death of his father and it took him back to Scotland.
There wasn’t enough work on the farm meaning he had to step out into the real world and become a rugby development officer in Glasgow to help pay the bills before Doncaster came calling again to end a 20-month gap in between Championship games.
“One hundred per cent I’m a bit more mature,” he said, reflecting on how his time away from playing professionally changed him. “Back then I was very much enjoying going for coffees and chewing the fat so I try to keep busy now.
— Robin Hislop (@bomberhislop) June 19, 2020
“Ultimately being a rugby player is amazing, you get to do what you like but you do have a lot of spare time and you can’t train all the time so it’s getting that balance and trying to be productive in that spare time that hopefully sets you up for life when rugby does end.
“I took some time out, had a serious injury and my dad passed away as well. I went back to Scotland just to look after my mother and two sisters. I worked on the farm a bit but my partner Rachael was in Glasgow, so we lived together there and I got a job as a development officer in a school promoting rugby in the local area. I was very much in the real world for ten, twelve months and was really grateful to Doncaster offering me a chance to get back into pro rugby.
“Definitely you take it [professional rugby] for granted. I had done that since I was 17, been a professional rugby player, but I don’t take it for granted anymore and any spare time I get I work incredibly hard. I’ve been head coach of National Two side Sheffield Tigers the past few years. I’m really into my coaching and also work part-time as a sales agent for Rex Club.”
That’s the sports headwear company headed up by Gus Watson, the older brother of Hamish with whom Hislop came through the Edinburgh academy with. “Obviously biased but he [Hamish Watson] has been awesome for years. It’s nice to see him get the recognition he got this year because he has been phenomenal. Hopefully, he kicks on and has a good summer.
“I enjoy the social aspect and the competitive nature of just trying to get people signed up for Rex Club. I do that very part-time but it’s another string to the bow and that might open a few avenues if coaching doesn’t work out for me.
— Robin Hislop (@bomberhislop) June 10, 2020
“I keep really busy because I now understand that one bad injury and it can all be over. I have got a good few years left but I just want to make sure I’m as prepared as much as possible for life after rugby so I can look after my family.”
Strikingly all hair and beard these days, Hislop’s ‘Bomber’ nickname is both apt and poignant. “I’ve had that all my life. It was my dad’s nickname. My dad was called Bomb and it was passed down and it stuck. Not many people call me Robin, my partner Rachel and my mum, but everyone else calls me Bomb and Bomber. It’s a hand-me-down nickname but there are worse nicknames to have.”
It quickened his heart to hear it shouted aloud the other week at Dore Moor, the home of the grassroots Tigers that was shut for the guts of a year due to the pandemic. “We started back Thursday of last week and it was awesome, smiles on faces.
“National Two, you are talking about a slog, a 16-team league so there are 30 games and they are usually spending every Tuesday, Thursday training, playing Saturday from September to April so for them not to see each other as much as that has been quite tough and the boys were just happy to be able to meet up. We didn’t do a lot, just played touch and the goal of the session was just to put some smiles on faces. The energy was really good.
“Being joint-head coach there is so much more to it. You have got to talk to players who have been injured, who have got family problems or you have got to drop a player. It definitely makes you a better player as well because you appreciate things a little more. For me, no matter what level of rugby you are playing at, you do it because you enjoy it.
“That is my big philosophy, just enjoy it and make it as fun as possible, especially for those blokes. They do get paid a little bit if they play first-team but ultimately they are grafting all week, they are giving up two nights when they could be with their mates or their family, so I just make it fun and that usually creates quite a good environment.”
Just like at Doncaster even though Hislop doesn’t yet know what he will be doing beyond the end of the current campaign. Having had a tiny nibble at the Premiership with Saracens he has ambitions of chewing off some more top-flight fare and would love if a fairer financial model emerged to enable the likes of the Knights to aspire to one day making the jump up into the English elite.
“That is what I want to do, I want to play Premiership and European rugby,” said the 28-year-old. “But I’m just focused on playing for Doncaster at the moment and have got no plan yet for next season. From a Doncaster point of view, the owners are brilliant but very realistic.
“They want to push us for the Premiership if it is fair financially but at the moment their stance is that financially it’s not fair, the funding differences between the leagues. The amount they would have to invest isn’t really financially doable at the moment.
“The goal for Doncaster over the next year or two is just to be one of the top Championship clubs and be right up there and then hopefully if Covid and everything else settles down they can sort the funding out so that it is a bit more of a level playing field and then I’m sure the club would love to push on.
— Robin Hislop (@bomberhislop) October 7, 2020
“They came up a lot of leagues over the last 20, 30 years and the facilities at Castle Park are unbelievable and they have got an academy structure now. With Yorkshire Carnegie/Leeds, whatever you want to call them, going down so I very much see Doncaster as being the hub of Yorkshire, the biggest county in England.
“Everyone talks about the players who play a few years in the Championship who go up or they come back down and go back up, but there are actually a lot of players who play their whole career in the Championship and they are bloody good rugby players.
“It gets a bit of a bad press. Player welfare is something that probably isn’t the best and the clubs get some harsh press because of that but there is a reason these clubs are having to be so cut-throat and stuff – it’s because it’s just not funded the way I feel it should be.
“Coming from Scotland where they are trying to bridge that gap between pro and club rugby with Super Six, you have got a clear pathway in England. You can take Sheffield Tigers to the Premiership if you have the right infrastructure and investment.
“You have two professional leagues and I just don’t see how that can’t be of benefit to English rugby, but I guess it all comes down to money. It’s a brilliant league but in my time the gap between Premiership and Championship has got a bit wider which is sad, but it’s exciting the playoffs are back and a huge audience will be watching those high-pressure games with a lot at stake.”
Beautiful morning for some nudges, @samolver nowhere to be seen again! ?? ???
— Robin Hislop (@bomberhislop) December 30, 2020
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