Written by Zack Wilson
Eagle Robertson at forefront of Scottish game’s upward flight
Scotland has produced a small number of rugby league greats over the years.
Veteran supporters may just about remember David Valentine from Hawick, who captained the Great Britain team to World Cup glory in 1954.
He remains the only Scot to have lifted a World Cup in a team sport playing for a national side, so it is a shame he remains virtually unknown in his homeland.
Alan Tait was another who made the journey from Scottish rugby union to Widnes and Leeds in the 1980s and 90s, while Scottish-born Billy McGinty featured for Wigan during the same era.
But few Scottish rugby players had the chance to try the 13-man code without leaving their homeland until recently.
Although our game has had a rocky ride North of the Border, the last decade has seen the game start to grow some green shoots, despite being hampered at times.
One man at the forefront of the Scottish rugby league revolution is Craig Robertson.
The Edinburgh Eagles centre has played a full role in his club winning the North East England league in 2019, and is head coach to Barry McGuffog at the club.
How he ended up trying rugby league is an illuminating story that perhaps offers inspiration to other aspiring Scottish league players.
“My dad was always a keen Wigan supporter, and he would always watch Super League on a Thursday or Friday night, when rugby union wasn’t playing,” Robertson told Everything Rugby League.
“But it’s not really exposed up here.
“We won a domestic rugby union cup, the Scottish Cup, with Gala, and then one of the boys said to me, ‘Look, you score tries for fun, why don’t you come and try league?’
“Then I went from there –I remember my first game for Edinburgh Eagles, I scored five tries, I was like, ‘This is easy!’
“Because I’m from the Borders and we’re really into our sevens down there.
“Between sevens and 15s I think rugby league fits in well. I used to be a sprinter when I was younger too, so I’m relatively quick but I’ve got the fitness as well.
“So I thought, ‘This is my cup of tea.’
“And now, if I could play league throughout the full season rather than just when the union season runs out I would pick league every time, to be honest.
“League was black market rugby essentially (in the Borders), league was essentially a swear word.
“But nowadays it’s open, when I’m back home folk actually come up to me and say, ‘Well done, son,’ and offer congratulations.
“So it’s good to get the recognition for it, whereas 20 or 30 years ago you would get told to do one.”
Robertson is a native of Galashiels, a town that has produced plenty of talent in the other code over the years, with the likes of Chris Paterson, Peter Dods and Gregor Townsend turning out for them over the years.
But it has not been known for rugby league until recently, when the club’s Netherdale ground was adopted as a home stadium by the Scots.
Despite being a native of the town and a club stalwart, Robertson’s league achievements go largely unrecognised in official circles at Netherdale.
“To be honest, the only thing that doesn’t happen is that you don’t get your picture up on the wall like union boys do,” he said.
“It’s a kick in the teeth to be honest, because I got my first cap at my homeground of Netherdale at Gala, and they’ve still not got a photo up.
“But they’ve got a photo up of my sister, when she played for the women’s rugby union squad.”
Keen-eyed rugby league fans will have noted Robertson’s performance in last year’s European Championship game against France.
The game was played at Robertson’s home ground of Netherdale, something which certainly seemed to inspire him.
He scored a try in the game, although he felt that he should have had at least one more.
“I got a pass from Matt Hogg and I saw a gap right in front of me,” he explained.
“So I put the afterburners on because I can always rely on my speed, and just went.
“But it’s really soft ground there, and it’s hard to get any traction on it. It’s as slow as a fortnight of jail.
“But I finally got to the try line and beat Morgan Escare, which was good because we’d had a bit of ding dong in the game as well.
“But then I got a second opportunity for a try, I was at dummy half and I went right through the ruck but when I placed it down the ref disallowed it.
“I was more gutted for not getting two tries than for scoring one try, to be honest.
“As soon as I celebrated, I looked up to the sky, and I always celebrate with a ‘W’ for my good friend who died in a car crash.
“His name was Richard Wilkinson.”
There is the old dividing line of social class in Scottish rugby union too, with the vast majority of players at the top end of that code in Scotland having been privately educated.
Rugby players who have not been to private school face discrimination in the system, according to Robertson, and would be better off trying the 13-man code.
“If you don’t go to private school in Scotland, you’re ruined for rugby union,” he said.
“But whereas if rugby league goes into state schools in Scotland, we’ve got a chance to give opportunities to the less fortunate boys, who haven’t got the parents to give them the opportunities that the private school boys get.
“Honestly, if Scotland Rugby League can get the development officers sorted, it will be a different kettle of fish.
“We could become a massive player in the rugby league world.”
Robertson has also challenged the recently formed Glasgow RL club to raise their standards.
The Scotland international does not feel that the Glasgow team as they currently stand are doing Scottish rugby league in general any favours.
“To be honest, Glasgow might be back up and running, but they’re a joke of a team,” he said.
“They pulled out against us. For all the publicity they’re getting it’s ridiculous. We invited them to our training sessions and we’ve tried to help them.
“But they’ve got nobody. It’s not good.
“When they go down to West View Warriors in the North East England Cup and get a score put past them, and get blown up after 50 minutes, it’s not good for Scottish rugby league at all.
“Yes, it’s good to see another team, but is it good to see another Scottish team getting hammered? No. It’s not.
“If you look at us at Edinburgh, this has been two years in the making, and you have to put in the efforts.
“The Scotland Rugby League at the moment they really need to point the finger, and think, ‘You know what, we have to do something about it, we have to go out there and not be quiet about it.’
“Because the Scottish league isn’t publicised at all, it isn’t advertised. That’s why we went into the North East League, because we’re going to get weekly games at a decent standard.
“Yeah, you get the likes of Peterlee that we beat 120-0 or something like that and it’s not fun, but, you know what, we got on and did it because we’re contributing to Scottish rugby league, and we want to promote the sport in Scotland as well.
“We feel that, yes, it’s great for Glasgow to get a team, but it’s not great for them to get hammered and blown out in games.
“They pulled out of playing us, so it sounds like bad blood, but if they actually had a squad they would be able to deal with it.”
Robertson is also optimistic about the future of the Scottish game, not least because of the quality of players in the Scotland Under-16 set-up.
“I was speaking to John Duffy [Scotland assistant coach and Leigh head coach) and asking him if Leigh had an academy because these boys have to get picked up one way or another,” he said.
“I want to speak to Chris Chester [Scotland coach] about it too.
“If they have the right direction it’ll be good. The most important thing is getting into the schools and putting the exposure in there.
“If you’ve got the exposure to the youngsters, they’ll want to know about it, and if they’ll want to find the opportunities we offer.”