MARK ROBERTSON will make sure that his home town of Melrose is properly represented when rugby returns to the Olympic roster in just over two weeks’ time (this time in Sevens form), after a 92 year hiatus.
“I’m going down [to Melrose] this week, so I’ll be grabbing a couple of things and trying to get them into a few photos here and there,” says the 31-year-old, who was one of only two Scots – alongside Mark Bennett – to be named in the GB Men’s Sevens squad for the Games earlier this week.
“I was a bit gutted when they announced the team and put me down as: ‘Mark Robertson – Galashiels’! I’m not happy about that, I’ve got to say. I grew up in Melrose and never played for any other club at amateur level. For me, that’s a huge thing. I’m massively proud to be able to represent the club,” he adds.
Rio de Janeiro and the sleepy Borders town where the abbreviated game was invented 133 years ago may be 6,000 miles apart geographically, and the gap is perhaps even greater culturally, but that is unlikely to faze a player who has travelled a far greater personal odyssey during a roller-coaster career.
Robertson signed his first professional contract with the Border Reivers in 2006, and when that club was disbanded at the end of that season he was shifted up to Edinburgh. A pelvic injury limited him to just one appearance off the bench during his first year in the capital, but when he was fit at the start of the following season the livewire winger proved himself to be one of the most exciting prospects in the Scottish game – picking up nine Scotland A caps and earning a call-up to the extended Scotland training squad.
But that pelvic problem wouldn’t go away, and continued to limit his game time, until things finally came to a head at the conclusion of a miserable 2010-11 season in which he managed just seven appearances for the club – all before the end of October.
“I effectively retired,” he recalls. “The surgeons that I’d seen all over the country weren’t able to tell me what was wrong or how long it would take to get back. They just said there were a lot of injuries there.”
And that could very easily have been that, were it not for an extra dash of misfortune – which proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“My career-ending insurance was void because I hadn’t played enough games at the time I’d taken it out – and that was luck, complete luck that it didn’t happen. I perhaps wouldn’t have been here now otherwise,” he reveals.
“I then went to America and saw some specialists who said: ‘Listen, it can get better, it’s just going to take time’. Once you hear that, once you have someone being positive about it, that definitely made me believe I could get back and play.”
Robertson returned home and completed a Master’s degree in Physiology with Strength and Conditioning at Edinburgh University, had a four week trial with London Scottish, and then got his chance back north of the Border with a Sevens contract.
“The reason I carried on playing was because I didn’t think I had achieved my potential and I wanted see what I could achieve, It took two or three years to get to where I wanted to get to. I think last season, and the season before, was the best rugby I’ve ever played – even [better than] when I was in the extended Scotland squad and things like that,” he says,
“My injuries are better and I manage them well. But the biggest thing for me is the mental aspect, and that’s something we are trying to improve in the Scotland Sevens squad. When you come down here [to the GB Sevens training squad camp] you see young English guys with more self-belief, and that’s something that has been improved in our programme, and hopefully that can be carried forward into the fifteens as well.”
It hasn’t been all plain sailing since his unlikely comeback. Robertson missed out on selection for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, which was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, but ultimately served as the final push he needed to get to where he is today.
“I was injured for the Scotstoun [World Sevens Series] tournament [two months before the Games] and came back in for Twickenham, but I had a bad half against France and was pulled off the pitch and didn’t really get a chance to start the games after that,” he recalls.
“To be honest, I don’t think I would be in this squad now if I hadn’t missed out on the Commonwealth Games because I was absolutely gutted when I wasn’t involved, and I believed that I was good enough to be in that squad and I knew there was a couple of things I could have done better to give myself a better chance.”
“I never wanted to have that feeling again, that I could have done a little bit more, and that was a huge motivation during the ups and downs of last season. And I think that makes this an awful lot sweeter when you miss out on something like that.”
Father, Keith, was a precocious centre-cum-winger for Melrose and Scotland in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, who made up for a lack of bulk with razor sharp rugby instincts, serious pace and innate footballing ability.
He played 44 games for Scotland and was no mean operator on the Sevens field either, being part of the Melrose team which lifted the Ladies Cup in 1975 and was twice a beaten finalist in 1977 and 1980.
After hanging up his boots, Robertson Senior moved into coaching and rugby administration, and was a driving force in the push for clubs rather than state controlled districts to be at the forefront of Scottish rugby in the professional era.
Losing that battle might have polluted his love affair with the game in this country – but did nothing to diminish the excitement and pride he derives from his son’s achievements.
“When we [became the first Scotland team to win an HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament] down at Twickenham [in May], my Mum was seriously worried. He said it was the most excited he’s been in his life. He got up and my Mum said he went white and she thought he was having a heart attack. He had to lie down – he didn’t know what was going on,” laughs the son.
“He’s been a massive supporter all through my career. He thinks I had the potential to play fifteens for the country, and that injuries have limited me. He’s seen how grumpy and pissed off I’ve been over the years, how much it’s taken out of me, but also how much I’ve got from it. I think he’s just massively proud for me, and for the family, that I’ve managed to do something that’s a dream come true.”
“When I said to my old man, my Mum and my wife last week [that I had made the cut for Rio], there were quite a few tears – we were just so, so proud. I’m very fortunate at the same time. It has taken a lot of hard work and a lot of pretty crap times. When you’ve been through a bit of adversity, it makes it a lot sweeter.”
Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group