Exclusive interview: Rob Andrew

Bex Law 5 February 2010

The Director of England Rugby talks to Bex Law about the future of the game

Rob Andrew MBE is unfailingly polite and unerringly politic. The Director of Elite Rugby with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), an ex-Cambridge double Blue and most famous for his 70 England caps at fly half, Andrew spoke with genuine passion for the game, although held tightly within cautious ‘interview’ parameters. However, a few questions broke down the barriers and invoked the warm natural responses of a truly likeable man, chatting about playing rugby for England, rugby and cricket for Cambridge and overseeing the long-term development programme in the RFU, including the plans for the 2015 World Cup to be held in England.

Rob Andrew took on his current position as Director of Elite Rugby in 2006. All aspects of representative rugby in England from the England squad to age-grade squads and the professional referees all fall within his remit. Elite Rugby also “manage the relationship between the Premier and Championship clubs and the RFU.” His focus is “Player development, coach development and referee development… our relationship with the Premiership and the Championship clubs is critical to that, because that’s where all of those three categories perform most weeks. The player development process is obviously the high profile one because everybody focuses on the teams and particularly the England team. The bigger picture job is really around long-term development through all of our teams and through the academy structure, which is a partnership between the Premiership clubs and the RFU.”

Looking ahead to the 6 Nations with a “big game to start the tournament” (England kick-off their campaign at Twickenham against Wales on Saturday at 1700) Rob said “we are quietly confident of where we are going, I don’t think we’re shouting from the roof tops but we are quietly confident.” He stressed that “the first game in the Six Nations is always critical but we are at home which is obviously a help.”

His tip for the most dangerous threat in the Six Nations is Ireland: “on paper I think most pundits would argue that Ireland are very strong; they won the Grand Slam last year; they had some big players in the British Lions team last summer, with key players including Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll. They are a very settled side with a lot of experience. On paper they’re the side most people would mark down as the favourites.” Even here, Rob was guarded, pointing out that “it’s always difficult in the Six Nations as you say one thing and it doesn’t normally happen…there are always banana skins everywhere.”

Next year will see the 2011 Rugby World Cup held in New Zealand. According to Rob the squad is beginning to take shape. “I think we’re now in a position where we can be very confident about how strong we are in the next 12-18 months”

The team have been rebuilt following the 2007 World Cup which has been “pretty tough” and the “biggest challenge for Martin “.

“You can definitely see that taking shape now. We have the Six Nations then we go to Australia in June and I think by the time that’s finished we’ll have a very good idea what the shape of the squad is for the World Cup and we’ll still have 15-16 months.”

Rob was very positive about the future of English Rugby, “Part of what we do is looking forward to 2015 and 2019, looking ahead to the next World Cups. We have got a very strong development structure and our under-18s have been unbeaten for over three years now.

Our under-20s have been to the last two world cup finals. Our age-grade rugby is very strong at the moment and that will come through for 2015 when the World Cup will be in England. Part of my job is to look 5-10 years ahead as to the players coming through the system. Long-term we’re going to be very strong; I have no doubts about that.”

His own England playing career is full of impressive wins and memorable games. His humility shines through immediately when speaking of this subject, “I was very lucky to play a lot of games, especially big matches here at Twickenham, it’s fantastic here.”

His fantastic triumphs don’t deserve to be so downplayed. He played in three World Cups, knocking out Australia in 1995 with a drop goal on the stroke of full-time, a move which Johnny Wilkinson recreated to win the 2003 World Cup. When recounting his memories of this he doesn’t even mention his part in it, speaking of a “massive win against Australia” in the South Africa-hosted World Cup. His voice is almost bashful and embarrassed when he concludes “there were lots of very big moments to be honest, I was very lucky to have played in the games I played in.”

Before his England playing career Rob Andrew was here, at St John’s. His fond memories of Cambridge remove the caution from his voice. Suddenly there is a real warmth to him as the Cambridge questions break through his reserve. “It was a phenomenal three years to be honest.

“The whole thing was a great experience all round. I was heavily involved in sport with the Varsity match not just in the rugby but the cricket as well. I was in a dream world in many senses. I had just come down from school and within 12 months I was playing rugby at Twickenham and I was 12th man at a Lords cricket match: it doesn’t get much better than that to be honest. Being a lover of sport and playing both of them, to be able to play the sort of quality rugby and the quality cricket that I was able to whilst at Cambridge was just extraordinary. We won all three Varsity Rugby matches in ’82, ’83 and ’84 and I was involved in three Varsity Cricket matches, I captained the cricket team in my third year. I didn’t have a favourite sport , it was a boy’s dream.”

When asked how he managed to juggle a degree, Blues cricket and Blues rugby, Rob just laughed it off saying that “people often asked me how I managed to get any work done. I managed to just about get through. I often say it helped my time management for later in life. It was a privilege to do those things

“It is one of the challenges we have got to ensure that the young players still get an education, still fit in other things apart from their rugby. I think that was one of the beauties of the old amateur game, that players were able to do a bit of both. Play their sport and get a good degree, go on and have a career in something. For young players now its almost been reversed- their rugby and their contract with their rugby comes first and we’re trying to encourage them to make sure they still do a degree, even if its part time, that they do something outside of rugby because that is very important for them long-term.”

After his own time at Cambridge University Rob went on (if only very briefly) to pursue both cricket and rugby. It is rumoured he once got a 17-year-old Michael Atherton out for a duck.

Although he remains a cricket fan, eventually rugby “began to take over because I was better at rugby and started to play at a higher level in rugby than cricket. Therefore it became more and more difficult to do the other sport. I was capped for England whilst I was still at Cambridge, I played for England in the Five Nations in 1985, my final year.” It seems incredible that Rob managed to balance Varsity Rugby, Varsity Cricket, being cricket captain and playing in the Five Nations whilst in his final year at Cambridge. He admits “it was quite a challenging final year” and when I comment that it seems an incredible feat he suggests “maybe times have changed a bit with the work load.” “Time-management” seems to be another classic understatement as most of us have enough anxieties about the work load alone.

Rob Andrew intends to stay in his current position for the foreseeable future but modestly points out that “that might be up to other people.” The job is all about looking forward and planning for the years to come. “I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing and have a very clear plan on what we are doing working with the RFU and Premiership clubs.”

He wants to see that come to fruition. There’s a “massive focus on 2015 with England hosting the World Cup, which we haven’t done since 1991.” Rob believes this will raise the profile of rugby in England again and that “it’ll be a huge event and it’ll be great to be really involved in that.”

Having spoken to him, I was left with the distinct impression that whatever the fate of English rugby, having a man of such passion and drive at the helm can’t be a bad thing. Bring on 2015.

Bex Law