Pro Rugby Player, Head Coach Sheffield Tigers, Rex Club Sales Agent
Photography Oscar J Ryan
Pro Rugby Player, Head Coach Sheffield Tigers, Rex Club Sales Agent
Photography Oscar J Ryan
After a career of playing, some are lucky enough to land commentating or coaching roles. Many, however, are faced with a forced retirement from the industry that they’ve spent over a decade in. A back-up plan is essential for anyone who intends to make a career in sports. To discuss the importance of this, we spoke to Robin Hislop (affectionately known as Bomber). He is currently a professional rugby player at Doncaster Knights, head coach at Sheffield Tigers RUFC, and a sales agent here at Rex Club. With a varied group of projects behind him, and a career change expected after he finishes professional play, he shares his plans, experiences, and musings about the life of a pro player and what comes after the final game.
What makes you so keen to throw yourself into so many different roles?
A few reasons. For one, I’m a tight Scotsman who enjoys having some extra cash! I think it’s also influenced by the way I was brought up. I grew up on a farm and my parents were both extremely hard working farmers. I think that rubbed off on me. Another reason would be that a few years ago, at the end of the 16/17 rugby season, I was thrown into the real world. I had a fairly bad injury to my shoulder and neck which required an operation.
How did you bounce back from that injury?
I went back home and worked on the farm for a few months while I did my rehab, but there wasn’t enough work for me on the farm so I had to get a real job. I’d only ever played rugby or worked on the farm for a living, so that hit me pretty hard. But I got a job and worked hard on my rehab and got back playing some amateur rugby, then I was lucky enough to get back into pro game the following season. But from that point
on I realised how fortunate I was as a pro rugby player and how much spare time I had, so instead of playing football manager and going for endless coffees with the lads, I decided I needed to get busy and prepare myself for life after rugby whenever that point comes again.
Has it always been rugby? Were there ever any other sports or hobbies?
Growing up on my parents’ farm, most of my childhood was spent working alongside them and helping out whenever I could on school holidays. I don’t get back now as much as I would like as there’s games on most weekends, but I do enjoy helping out on the farm when I can get there. I love my football. I support the famous Glasgow Rangers and have a soft spot for Manchester United. I never really got to play too much football as a kid because I was already playing rugby and things were busy on the farm. I did play a couple of games for the school though, the last one ending in a red card and the PE teacher suggesting that I should stick to rugby, so that was that! A few years ago I would have backed myself to beat anyone at Fifa, too.
How do you find your satisfaction differs between success when playing personally and coaching?
That’s quite a tough one, really. I guess with playing you are in control over how you play and how you prepare yourself for games. Then with coaching, you feel you have a bit more control over the whole game. Before kick off you pick the side, you decide which tactics are best to use, and how you want to play, but I guess as soon as the game kicks off you have zero control as it’s all down to the players. I pride myself on working pretty hard so most of the time I’m fully prepared to play, but we all still have the odd bad game. So I guess,
at the moment, there is a little bit more satisfaction in coaching as you have a bit more say on how the side can play.
What are your career highlights?
My career highs would definitely be playing for Scotland across the age group levels, especially captaining the U20s and going to two Junior World Cups in Italy and South Africa. Making my professional debut for Edinburgh by playing in the Heineken Cup away at Munster in a packed out Thomond Park was pretty cool. I joined Rotherham Titans on loan during the 13/14 season and it’s probably the most I’ve ever enjoyed my rugby, we had an awesome group of lads and I made some incredible friendships. We also made myself two Championship play offs along the way. Last year didn’t go as we would have liked as a team at Doncaster, but we were delighted at the end of the season to get the Players’ Player award.
What about your coaching highlights?
My coaching highlight is pretty easy to pick. In my first season at Sheffield Tigers, the head coach left about two thirds of the way through the season, so the backs coach and I became joint head coaches. At that point, we were rock bottom of National 2 North and about eleven points adrift at the foot of the table with nine games to go. At that point we had nothing to lose, so we put a big emphasis on having fun, which I think took a lot of pressure off the lads. They also worked incredibly hard. We went on to win seven out of those nine games which was amazing considering where we were a few months before that. The last game was particularly special. We were away at Luctonians and things couldn’t be more simple: win we stay up, lose we would be relegated. We started the game pretty nervous and didn’t actually play that well,
but by the second half we finally found our grove and went on to win by ten or twelve points. We had pulled off “the great escape”! Save to say, it was very enjoyable bus journey back to Sheffield. I learned a lot in that short spell, but what made it so enjoyable was how close all the boys were with each other. They’re all really good mates and you could see how much it meant to them all.
It can’t all be good, can it? Have you had many career lows during your time in sport?
In terms of career lows, I guess there has been a few along the way. I had my first proper injury in the summer of 2013. I fractured my leg but it wasn’t too bad. I got back playing after about three months. There’s also been a few exciting contracts on the table that fell through at the last minute for one reason or another. But the toughest time by far was about half way through the 16/17 season when I was at Doncaster. I had some pain and weakness in my shoulder after a game so I went and saw a specialist. They said the issue was coming from my neck. I then had to have an operation. In total, I was out for about nine months. That’s a long time to be out, but not that uncommon either in pro rugby. It was more the events over those nine months and the uncertainty that came
with it that were difficult. My contract ran out at the end of April and no club wanted to sign me because it was looking like I’d miss the majority of the coming season. Along with that, my Dad passed away that summer, which was pretty tough to take. He was my best mate and the reason I had even started playing rugby. So at the age of 25, I had been dumped out of pro rugby and had to find myself a job.
What helps you come back from such lows?
There’s been some tough times but my partner Rachel was a huge help. I’m a massive believer that there’s no point in just feeling sorry for yourself: what’s done is done, you just have to get on with it. A lot of my motivation came from people assuming that I was done and wouldn’t play again, so I wanted to prove them wrong. I also wanted to make Dad and my family proud. So I just kept my head down, did my rehab, weights, and training around whatever work I had on, and I was lucky that Donny gave me a shot again.
There is a clear issue facing sporting professionals when they leave the game. Often careers finish in late 20s or early 30s, leaving young people stuck without a clear career path. What are your personal thoughts on this?
There are issues, definitely. I think a lot of that comes down to people not being prepared for it, I know I wasn’t when I had to take some time out. I think the biggest issue is that you go from being in an environment where you are surrounded by thirty blokes who are all your mates to not having that anymore. It’s pretty impossible to replace. But at the end of the day, we all know that we can’t play forever and it’s a short career so we should be prepared for that and have plans in place – but it is easier said than done.
There is plenty of discussion at the moment based around mental health in sport and the struggles young men face when their careers come to an end. However, we still want and need great professional sports players. What are the pros to entering a career in sport?
My career has given me so much. I’ve made some amazing friends, got to travel to some pretty cool places, and had some epic nights out along the way too! I’d also say it’s shaped me a lot regarding who I am as a person. It’s easy to take for granted that I can do my hobby for a living: there are some crap days when it’s freezing, pissing down, and you’ve got twenty live mauls to get through. But then I remind myself that it’s nothing like having to shear a couple hundred sheep or muck out a cattle shed with a shovel!
You have a number of involvements already, you must have a good idea of what you would like to do in the future?
Easy answer – Gus has promised me a six figure role at Rex Club HQ, haha! But seriously, I think I do. Being out of farming for so long, it would be tough to go back to that now. I would love to stay in rugby and especially pro rugby with coaching, but it’s a fairly unstable business and I don’t want to move my family to a new place every few years. I really enjoy the sales work with Rex Club so I would definitely be interested in doing something along those lines, either in sports or alcohol sales, so I’m keeping my options open. I still feel like I’ve got my best playing years ahead of me, so hopefully it’s still a while away yet.
You seem to keep very busy! Does playing professional sports does allow you a healthy amount of time off?
There is a decent amount of time off, as you can’t train for eight or nine hours a day, obviously. Most of the boys look after themselves pretty well with their recovery, but we still get a good two days off a week. Everyone’s different with what they do with that time off, but I guess it’s doing what’s best for you to ensure you perform on a weekend.
You have filled this time with coaching and working with Rex Club. How integral is it for you personally to keep busy, juggle commitments, and maintain balance throughout your day to day life?
I enjoy being busy and I want to be as prepared as possible for when my playing days are over. Rachel, my partner, would say I maybe take too much on, but I think
I get the balance about right most of the time. Playing is still my priority so I make sure I’ve ticked all the boxes with recovery before I do my other commitments. I still reckon I work less than if I was in a ‘proper’ job, but hopefully that next transition won’t be as big of a shock as it was the last time.
As children, we all had sporting heroes and idols. Who were yours?
My parents, for sure. My dad was a huge influence on me and someone I looked up to a lot. My mum has been amazing, especially in these last few years with what she has been through. She’s a proper tough person and I am incredibly proud of her. Tom Smith and Jonny Wilkinson were my favourite rugby players growing up, and it was class to play behind the “Chunk” Alan Jacobson at Edinburgh. He’s a hell of a player and legend of a bloke. Sir Alex Ferguson, too!
Any words of wisdom or advice that you could offer our Rex readers?
Appreciate what you do. If you’re lucky enough to be a professional sports person, don’t take it for granted. Whether you’re an international superstar or dogging it out in lower leagues, it’s a privilege and a lot of people would love to do it. Just be as prepared as possible for life after pro sport; we know it’s not going to last forever so be as ready as you can be. If you don’t know what you want to do, try lots of things. Sure, there’s things you might not like, but at least you can rule that out and move onto something else.
Edited by Naomi Prakash