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Robertson swops sevens for Clermont

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'You don't go into sevens for the money... the guys at the top of the Scotland set-up will be on £35k'

Mark Robertson is anxious. Not about his coaching, corporate speaking or his television commentary on the Sevens World Series, but the introductory speech he’s going to have to deliver – in French – in about two months’ time.

A former winger in XVs, a pillar of the Scotland Sevens and their wonderful transformation, and an Olympic silver medallist with Britain in 2016, Robertson is off to Clermont. There, he will join the strength and conditioning staff of the French juggernaut on a two-year contract.

That leaves him somewhere in the region of eight weeks to craft that all-important first impression. “Je m’appelle, Mark, et j’adore le seevins” ain’t going to cut it.

“I’ll have to stand up and tell them a bit about me and try and be a little bit comical. That should be easy enough given the fact I’ll be struggling with the old French,” said Robertson to RugbyPass.

“I’ve actually got a mate over coaching the Chinese Women’s Sevens and he spent three or four years in France. I’m going to send the speech over in English and he’s going to send it back in French. I’ll have to put it in Google translate to make sure there are no dodgy things in there – I don’t trust him.”

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Robertson always has been one to plough his own furrow. After retiring in 2017, he was assigned to work with the academy players of Scotland’s Borders region and actually spent over a year training the national team. Then, he promptly resigned from Gregor Townsend’s staff.

“Everybody was like, ‘You’re a numpty doing that’, but I knew it was right because I wanted to focus more on the one job,” he explained. “As a player, I didn’t have the management skills to be able to do two things at once and I didn’t think I was doing either that well.

“And also, it looks glamorous when you’re doing the national team stuff but really, when they go into camp, physically, it’s the most stressful experience they are ever exposed to. The training intensity is higher than they have ever done and the match intensity is higher than any normal week-to-week intensity.

“So all you’re trying to do in the gym is give them a low-risk stimulus that gives them a bit of a placebo that makes them think they are getting faster and stronger. But really you’re trying to minimise risk, maintain the levels of they have already got and manage that load to prevent injury as much as possible. You couldn’t really try things because the risk was too high.”

The attraction for Clermont in recruiting Robertson is obvious – they get a skilled operator who focuses on the sort of explosive footwork and high intensity fare that is becoming increasingly desirable in today’s game. “I’m really specialised in evasion and footwork, especially position-specific footwork – individuals using their strengths to manipulate and beat defenders. A lot of the footage I sent over to Clermont was based on drills and scenarios I’d created to develop those skills.

“Another part of my role is bringing players back from injury. So once they are through a specific stage with the physios, I’ll take them from being functional and gradually increase the load and the strength and speed to the point where they are able to be reintegrated with the team.

“They understand that because it’s such an attritional season. You can’t just be looking to get the biggest men because collisions inevitably mean injury when you have got so many of them. What they want to focus on is, can they play a higher speed, higher tempo game, that will enable them to make more use of overlaps, one-v-one opportunities, and score more tries through repeat high-intensity efforts? Can they keep the intensity of the game constantly higher than what it’s being played at?”

Intensity is Robertson’s bread and butter. Sevens, you sense, is his great love. It was his haven when a pelvic problem came perilously close to ending his career and it gave him the perfect vehicle to continue bettering himself.

The Scotland Sevens is a much slicker, more prolific operation these days than the one he joined in 2012. They’re World Series title winners now; they’re developing young talents again. But back in 2015, the squad were delivering too little. Scotland had lost its leg on the Series and the union gave its players a double-dose of reality.

“We sat in the changing room and heard some pretty tough things being said to us. But if you look back on it, it was completely justified, although I wouldn’t have said that at the time. How could you justify sending a group of players around the world who weren’t developing youngsters and also weren’t winning things? Things had to change. It’s hard to say that but it obviously sparked a reaction. When your lifestyle is threatened and your backs are against the wall, you have to change.”

In came Calum ‘Kitty’ MacRae and his strength and conditioning lieutenant Nick Lumley and that change was rapid. The squad got a hell of a lot fitter and suffered very few injuries. Players were given individual areas to improve and held accountable to their progress, the team worked on their weaknesses together and fostered a sense of trust in one another.

It’s no coincidence that Edinburgh have become more robust and meaner since Richard Cockerill added both MacRae and Lumley to his staff. “I remember really clearly, Kitty asked us in a meeting, ‘How do you feel about criticism?’ Everybody was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think we’ll deal well with it, we’ll point the finger, everybody will go into their shells and it’ll be negative’,” said Robertson.

“That’s the first thing he wanted us all to be clear on. He is intense, but the reason why we criticise is to bring about a solution and to become better. By identifying that first of all, all of a sudden guys started buying into it. The biggest thing is the stress the World Series puts on you psychologically, which is still a taboo subject in sport and doesn’t get confronted enough.

“You have to be emotionally consistent, like the All Blacks. That’s huge. The amount of times that you will watch some teams lose and they will be so pissed off that you will see a massive reaction and they will beat one of the best teams. But they will go on such an emotional high that they can’t sustain that for the next game and they will lose to someone four or five places below them.

“With Kitty, which some people won’t like, we took the emotion out of it completely. If we won a game, we just didn’t get very excited about it. We didn’t really celebrate. We had a look at the game, switched off, mucked about in the changing rooms, then came back in for the next game.

Scotland’s Mark Robertson gives Fiji’s Vatemo Ravouvou the slip in Paris in 2017 (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

“Same thing if you lost, you’d be critical, hold each other accountable to mistakes, and move on. And honestly, we conserved so much energy, and it meant you weren’t on that emotional rollercoaster – I hated that rollercoaster.”

The culture came and the success followed. The pinnacle? Two glorious, thunderous days at Twickenham when Scotland won the title in London in 2016 and then defended it a year later. How many Scots have won at RFU HQ? How many have revelled on that vast patch of grass with a trophy above their heads?

“To be able to experience what we experienced, winning a World Series title at Twickenham for the first time, was absolutely ridiculous,” Robertson said. “We were a group of players who had never been past a cup quarter-final before, who then won two World Series titles, got to three finals and another semi-final.

Clermont, Robertson’s new club, are one of the best supported in the French Top 14 (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

“You don’t go into sevens for the money. Generally, the guys at the top of the Scotland set-up will be on £35k. There are guys who are third and fourth in their position in a XVs team in Scotland who will be on double that. We were going in there to become the best in the world on a given day and we wanted to achieve something nobody else had.

“When you look at the most decorated Scottish internationalists, a lot of them have never won anything, which is harsh, but they have never beaten the best in the world, never won a tournament. We’re very, very proud we have actually won a couple of tournaments, beaten New Zealand, beaten England on a number of occasions, beaten Fiji and South Africa. But we have got a lot to thank Kitty and Lummers [MacRae and Lumley] for because they created that change in the programme with the same group of players.”

WATCH: Part three of The Academy, the RugbyPass documentary series on Leicester Tigers

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'You don't go into sevens for the money... the guys at the top of the Scotland set-up will be on £35k'