He’s the stony-faced, former fringe first-grader who’s turned the Bondi boys into the league leaders.
Not many NRL fans would have heard the name Trent Robinson before this season. Young and largely unknown, the front-rower played just four games in first-grade, three for the Wests Tigers and one for Parramatta between 2000-2002, and had held a string of low-key NRL assistant coaching roles.
But it was his time in that rugby league stronghold of France, particularly with the Catalan Dragons, where Robinson really made his name.
After a few seasons playing with Toulouse Olympique in France’s Elite One Championship, the former St Gregory’s College Campbelltown student took over coaching the club when fellow Aussie Justin Morgan departed in August 2005.
Robinson helped the side to two second-place finishes under his tenure before he returned to Australia in 2007 to assist Brian Smith, first at Newcastle Knights and then at the Roosters.
He went back to France at the end of 2010 at the age of 33 as head coach of the Catalan Dragons, the only non-English team in the competition.
Long-time Super League strugglers, Robinson turned the French side into contenders. He had only had them for two years but in that spell Catalan finished sixth in 2011 and fourth in 2012.
Before that the Perpignan-based club had finished last (2010) and eighth (2009). The Dragons’ transformation under Robinson has continued this season, with the club currently placed sixth and heading for another finals berth.
A fluent French speaker with a French wife, Robinson was credited with successfully integrating Catalans’ heavy overseas playing contingent with its French core. He has also helped start the resurgence in French rugby league.
A noted hard worker and innovative thinker, Robinson was rewarded with the Super League Coach of the Year award in 2011.
Steve Menzies has worked with many of rugby league’s great coaches and he rates the ex-Dragons boss highly.
“When I had him at Catalan he really impressed me with his knowledge of every position on field, where you should be, what you should be thinking,” Menzies said.
“Just his structures, all that stuff really impressed me. He’s got a lot of potential to do a lot in the game.
“I suppose he’s going straight back to the NRL after his first head coaching job, probably quicker than he thought, but he’s a quality coach and he’s definitely got the capability to be around in that arena for a long time.”
Apart from his French connection, Robinson’s other great learning period in footy has come in being mentored by 29-year coaching veteran Brian Smith. Robinson played under Smith at the Eels and was part of his coaching staff for several years.
Smith’s brother, Warrington Wolves head coach Tony Smith, is another who speaks highly of the young coach. Tony Smith’s side played against Robinson’s Dragons outfit in Super League and he has not been surprised by his success at Eastern Suburbs.
“He’s a quality coach. I know Trent really well; I knew he’d be successful wherever he went. [Coaching in] Super League is a good place to learn, it’s a great way to prepare yourself.”
The ambitious coach has seemingly surprised many in the NRL with the way his Roosters team has risen to the top of the ladder. But those in the know at the Knights, and at the Roosters as well, wouldn’t be that shocked.
As this article from 2009 shows – the Knights were very keen to keep Robinson on their coaching staff but were ultimately unsuccessful. And, of course, Robinson played an important role as defence coach in the Roosters’ run to the 2010 grand final.
It might have seen a gamble to some, but the hiring of the 36-year old was a canny ploy by the club.
Robinson has galvanised the Roosters playing squad, one that has often lacked commitment and heart in recent seasons, and one that was known for giving up in tough games. He has rebuilt their defence, got them playing for each other and demonstrating real pride in the jumper.
You might argue that with Sonny Bill Williams, Mitchell Pearce, Anthony Minichiello, James Maloney, Michael Jennings and the rest it doesn’t take much to coach a side so laden with talent. You’d be wrong.
Plenty of teams in the NRL have talent but it takes more than that to win games, let alone not let in a point in 80 minutes and to lead the competition.
So far Robbo’s Roosters have kept the opposition scoreless five times this season – an amazing feat.
On another two occasions their opponents have scored just six points against them, while St George Illawarra could only manage 10 points in Round 7 and North Queensland just eight points in Round 10.
In total the Roosters have let in 215 points after 19 rounds, scoring 488 points in the same process.
The club’s miserly, suffocating defence has been their hallmark in 2013.
But it’s not just a much-improved defence that Robinson has brought to the table; it’s also the development in some of the Roosters’younger brigade.
Boyd Cordner made Origin this year and Sam Moa could be in the Kiwis’ World Cup squad. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves has never been in better form, Daniel Mortimer is back to his Parramatta best and the rookie coach has instilled new belief right across the squad.
Quiet but determined, he is the man with a sports science degree who is a great player-manager. At this rate Robinson is in line to be the NRL’s coach of the year in 2013. It would be an impressive accolade considering he is just 36 and in only his first year in an NRL hot seat.
Diehard Easts fans might remember Robinson as an unfashionable lower-grader at the club in the mid to late 1990s, a prop forward who never fully advanced up the chain. A tryer but not particularly gifted or skilful.
He might not have been a playing great for the Roosters but he could well become a coaching master for the Bondi boys in the near future.
Follow John Davidson on Twitter @johnnyddavidson