The raw emotion Olly Robinson expressed when his father Andy was sacked as Bristol director of rugby earlier this season revealed just how complicated rugby life can become. Robinson junior had to get on with his career as a key member of the struggling Bristol side knowing his father had been shown the door.
George Ford was so deeply hurt by father Mike’s removal as Bath director of rugby, that staying with the club became impossible to accept and he is joining Leicester at the end of the season. Owen Farrell, Ford’s schoolboy friend, had already been forced to come to terms with father Andy’s departure from the England coaching set up and Andy is now Ireland’s defence coach, with the rest of the family having moved from Hertfordshire to Dublin.
The Robinson, Ford and Farrell families are part of an unusual dynamic in English professional rugby which features another two father and son Premiership relationships with Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby, employing his son Thomas while Jim Mallinder, the Northampton boss, has son Harry in his first team squad. As the Robinsons, Fords and Farrells can testify, the delicate balance that has be found in these situations can be suddenly disrupted with dramatic effect on the families involved.
It is not as simple as saying that rugby can be left outside when father and son return to the family home. Life isn’t that black and white which makes Ford’s decision to quit Bath understandable because he still carries the hurt of seeing his father dumped by the owners. Robinson has been very open about the “anger” he feels at the way Bristol treated his father and now insists he is playing “for the family” which is a testament to his professionalism.
For Dai Young, right, what has happened to those three families is painfully familiar following his move from the Blues to Wasps and he knows the Youngs may have to go through hard times again in the future. Young is convinced that Thomas was forced out of the Blues, having come through the club’s Academy, because he was his son. Young understood the rationale at the time, but that didn’t lessen the belief he was solely responsible for his son’s situation.
Young explained:“Thomas hasn’t done it the easy way and has had many obstacles to overcome and I am probably the biggest. What I mean by that is Thomas came through all the age groups and just as he came up to the Blues, I moved on. I had been there eight or nine years and when I left the first thing the new person coming in does is dismantle that, to put their own stamp on things. Pretty much it was a case of the coach not wanting him there because he was my son.
“It is a difficult relationship but he is always going to be my son and Mike Ford, Andy Farrell, Jim Mallinder and Andy Robinson understand the situation. You do try not to treat them any differently and Thomas doesn’t get any favours in selection.
“Coming here, Thomas had to fight and I am very proud of him because he has done it the tough way and no one handed him anything. With all of the back row talent we have here, he has had to fight for his opportunities and has taken them. He deserves all the plaudits that have come his way. He has worked really hard having to double prove himself because people are only human and will say ‘he’s only there because of his father’. It comes with the territory”
The success of both Youngs has raised the possibility of both moving on at some point, with Dad one of the favourites to replace Warren Gatland and Thomas’ inclusion in the Wales squad making him a hot rugby property. Young senior also knows, as the Ford, Robinson and Farrell stories have shown, rugby life can be turned upside down at any moment. He added: “I hope that if I get sacked tomorrow that Thomas would be a bit upset and I am sure if he came in and said he wanted to go to Leicester I would be a bit upset!”
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It is now the turn of the Mallinder and Young sons to face suggestions that their fathers are either being too hard or giving them preferential treatment at their clubs. Thomas has been told by other Wasps players his Dad does give him a much tougher time in training although he insists this doesn’t really enter the equation. “On occasions people at the club say he is a bit harder on me than he would be on others, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said the 24-year-old open side flanker, who is one of three rugby playing brothers.
“Things weren’t going that well for me at Blues and then he gave me the opportunity to come to Wasps and every time I take the pitch I want to repay him for giving me the chance. I didn’t have much to do with Dad at the Blues but at Wasps I know that as soon as I walk into the building each day it’s work and he is the boss. When we get home it reverts back to a normal father and son relationship. My brothers came up for the Bath game and the whole family then travelled home to Wales on Christmas morning, then it was back for training the next day.”
The Youngs watch rugby together in the family home and while they discuss other teams, it never strays into Wasps talk. That stays outside the front door and appears to be a non-negotiable part of making a father and son scenario work for everyone in the family.
“We can have a sit down and watch a game and we talk about a good tackle or a clear out at a ruck,” said Dai. “It doesn’t then go into we should be doing this or that at Wasps. The reality is that when he is at home you try and get back into the father-son relationship and I cannot divorce myself from that, and when he is at Wasps training can I forget he is my son? No I can’t because he is always going to be my son and it will always be slightly difficult and of course I may be a bit harder on him.
“I am proud of my three sons and one of them just happens to be playing here at Wasps. My other sons are at Aberdare RFC and have a bit of brains because they don’t play in the front row. Lewis is a No.8 and Owen is No.7 and so we have two of those – either my wife is really quick or the milkman.”