'You go from being furloughed, questioning what you're doing with your life, to training against those boys - it was awesome'
At the end of a long, hot Yorkshire summer, Robin Hislop sat furloughed and unfulfilled, the Doncaster Knights prop’s wedding postponed and his yearning to pick up a rugby ball and thunder around a paddock raging brighter than ever. Two months later, Hislop was training and scrummaging alongside World Cup finalists, Lions and titans of the game, feasting on the wisdom of the English and European champions.
The prop’s loan to Saracens was only ever due to last six weeks, yet this transitory immersion in a land of giants was hugely stimulating. “Everyone raves about the Saracens culture but you don’t really appreciate it until you’re in that environment,” Hislop told RugbyPass. “You could argue that if you are being paid really well then you will love it, but Saracens is a really, really special club.
“I’ve been places before where you write these values down in pre-season, what you want to be known for – Saracens have got these values and everything goes back to them, I’ve never seen them related as much. When I got there, I had to fill out all these forms which were a bit irrelevant given I was only going to be there for six weeks, but all about my partner Rachel, what she does, to get her involved in email and WhatsApp groups.
“In normal times they do so much for your partner. They have usually got a creche there for your kids and they just invest in you as a person, not really as a rugby player. I could even see that being there for just six weeks.”
Hislop’s move came at a seminal time for Saracens, the end of a fabled, prosperous and hugely controversial period blighted by the salary cap scandal. Relegation had long been confirmed, more European glory was lusted after and thwarted by Racing 92, and colossuses in Brad Barritt and Richard Wigglesworth bade tearful farewells.
— Robin Hislop (@bomberhislop) October 7, 2020
“I was lucky enough to be in the meeting where they presented the leavers with their leaving gifts. Someone would talk about the person who was leaving, it was so emotional,” said Hislop. “They did mention some rugby games and some wins but it was all about the memories they made off the pitch.
“I sort of made a joke, ‘I wonder if anyone will say anything about me’, not wanting anything. But the meeting started with the team manager speaking about me and then presenting me with a signed top which there was no need to do. Other clubs I don’t think would do that. It doesn’t really matter who you are, you have been part of the family.
“Whether it’s for six weeks or for 15 years, they really appreciate that. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t want that, but it was just, wow. There is a real investment into the person and his family and not just what he provides as a rugby player.”
On the field, Hislop was tutored by World Cup-winning Springbok Vincent Koch. The Scot made three Premiership appearances from the bench, but the last was particularly special, 26 minutes against a full-strength Bath in the final game of the season. Bath needed a bonus-point victory to book a play-off berth before Sale Sharks’ desperate Covid-19-ridden forfeiture sealed their place in the top four.
Hislop was at the forefront of a pulverising Saracens shunt that earned a penalty try and sparked a comeback from 14-0 down to draw 17-17. The scrum and the performance proved that he belonged.
“I got loads of live scrums against Vincent Koch in training. You go from being furloughed, questioning what you’re doing with your life, to training against those boys. It was awesome,” said Hislop. “I held my own a couple of times against Vinny but I was definitely on the back foot a little bit!
“The main thing for me was I wanted to prove I could scrum at that level and we got a penalty try, so I was absolutely buzzing about that. The training itself was quite player-led. They say, here’s the framework we want to work with this week. Everything goes back to those values.
Doncaster Knights prop Robin Hislop has joined Sarries on loan until the end of the season as front row cover.#TogetherSaracens ???
— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) September 4, 2020
“They might put a theme on the week – for instance against Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final, it was that we wanted to be the most aggressive team, and what does that look like in different ways. They give you a theme and a framework and they let the players lead it which I guess you can do when you have got world-class players everywhere.”
At 28, Hislop has been in the Championship for the thick end of seven years since leaving Edinburgh in search of the sort of blood-and-thunder senior rugby that would put hairs on his chest as a burgeoning loosehead. He had captained Scotland U20 and played in the same age-grade sides as Stuart Hogg, Hamish Watson and Mark Bennett, but the bottleneck of props at the two Scottish professional teams meant his game time was fleeting.
Hislop is content at Doncaster, one of the second tier’s best-run clubs, and clearly flourishing. He was named in The Rugby Paper’s Championship team of the season last term, but still he longs for a crack at the top flight. “Alec Clarey, the tighthead that we got the penalty try with at the weekend, was at Jersey last year,” said Hislop.
“Jersey have got a really good pack and we at Doncaster took them apart so you see players stepping up. It’s just timing and a bit of luck. Last time I played at the top level was with Edinburgh a number of years ago and I was a young boy with a lot to learn. I don’t think the Championship gets the recognition it deserves, especially up front with scrum and maul, it’s a really tough league. I definitely feel that I’m good enough to make the step up.”
These are brutal months in the Championship. RFU funding cuts have laid waste to budgets and forced several clubs to shrink their rugby operation from fully professional to part-time. Doncaster are well-placed to compete at the top end of the table, albeit Hislop’s pals at Saracens will be the overwhelming title favourites.
“There were twelve professional teams and as the years have gone on the funding has been cut and this year has just been horrific,” said Hislop. “The latest cut has killed a lot of teams and then a pandemic doesn’t help anyone. It’s in a really bad way.
“When I first came, the gap between the Championship and Premiership probably wasn’t that much. Now, it’s huge. You’ve only got six out of twelve that are still fully pro, the standards are going to go down and the quality of the games is going to go down. The future is a bit sketchy.”
The season ahead will be fraught and bizarre, with Saracens pitched into a league in jeopardy. But when the big dogs fetch up at Castle Park, Hislop will be ready to make another statement.
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