Meet Rob Andrew, CEO of Sussex Cricket
- Credit: Jim Holden
The rugby legend on playing under skipper Will Carling, watching Jonny Wilkinson reach his potential – and why the time was right to resume his association with cricket
Rob Andrew is a legend of England rugby who won 71 caps for his country and was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
However, it is a lifelong love of another sport that brought him to Sussex.
He took over the reins as chief executive of Sussex County Cricket Club in 2017 after 35 years in rugby.
This is far from his first association with the summer sport though. Brought up in the north east, Rob’s early life was dominated by rugby and cricket running in tandem. Summers were spent on the school and village cricket fields of North Yorkshire and County Durham, while the winters saw him in action on the rugby pitch.
At Cambridge University he captained the cricket team in the Varsity Match at Lord’s. He scored a first-class century against Nottinghamshire and spent a season with the Yorkshire Second XI. All the while he turned out for Cambridge at rugby, representing them in rugby’s annual Varsity match at Twickenham.
“It’s always been a joint love and I’ve been very lucky to have had that throughout my life,” he says. “I have been very blessed to be involved in both sports at the level that I have. Cricket just felt like a natural progression when I came down to Sussex.”
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His love affair with rugby began at Barnard Castle School where he would forge an enduring partnership with future England teammate Rory Underwood.
“Rory and I were in the same house, we were in the same year. We came together at the age of 11 in September 1974. My first rugby match was with Rory in the under-12s against Durham School. The coach put Rory on the left wing and he put me at fly-half and we stayed there ever since!
“Either prescience or a lot of luck! That clearly had an enormous impact on what the rest of my life was going to be like.”
Rugby was still an amateur sport when Rob was called away from his university studies to make his England debut in January 1985 at Twickenham. His selection came on the back of a strong showing in the Varsity match the previous month.
“It was amazing. I was in my final year at university and I’m playing for England one minute, and in the college bar the next. It was a very different era. It’s probably difficult for people to really appreciate now.”
In 1987, Rob began an eight-year career playing at Wasps, juggling a career as a chartered surveyor with playing rugby for club and country.
“Wasps were a great group of people, we had a good side. We were probably not the most fashionable at the time, but we were probably the top London side and we were knocking on the door of the Leicester and Bath dominance. We managed to win the league in 1990 and then we got to a couple of Cup finals.”
Life as an amateur international sportsman with a full-time job was a demanding one and required a lot of hard work and sacrifice. After a day in the office, there was training two nights a week, club matches on Saturdays and often further training with England on Sundays.
“When you talk to young professional players about it now, they find it quite hard to believe. It was pretty tough to be honest.
“But at the time, because it’s all you know, you have nothing to compare it with. When the game went pro in 1995 you get a different perspective on what you did.
“We weren’t complaining. I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world. It was tough. There were times when you were plate-spinning lots of things, when you’re running around the streets at 10pm at night after a hard day at the office, because you know you’ve got to do another fitness session, because you’ve got England matches coming up in a few weeks’ time. Or you’re preparing for a World Cup or Lions tour.”
For Rob, truly dedicated amateur sports people are the most dedicated there are. “Because nobody’s paying you to do it, nobody’s telling you to do it. You’re doing it because you want to do it and you choose to do it. That’s really powerful.
“In some ways, what I tend to see now is that the very best professional players in any sport are the ones who would have been the best amateurs. They’re not doing it for the money, they’re doing it to perform, they’re doing it to get better. They’re working harder than anybody else because they want to be the best. That’s exactly what true amateurs do.”
During Rob’s decade playing international rugby, England won three Grand Slams in the space of five years under skipper Will Carling and reached the World Cup final in 1991, losing to fierce southern hemisphere rivals Australia.
“It was a brilliant time. Will was a very good captain of a very experienced group of players.
“We were a good side. We had a lot of characters, all amateurs, lots of walks of life. It was very much the era of working hard, play hard. It was the essence of amateur sport. To be together for as long as we were and to have the success we had was absolutely irreplaceable.”
England have only won a further two Grand Slams in the 25 years since Carling’s triumph in 1995.
“So, these things are not easily won. You dream of winning a Grand Slam, because that’s the pinnacle of the Northern Hemisphere game in the Five Nations or what is now Six Nations. So, that was amazing.”
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In 1995, Rob returned to the northeast for an exciting new challenge with Newcastle Falcons. The role, first as a player/coach and later as director of rugby offered him a chance to build something new close to where he grew up.
With investment from new owner Sir John Hall, the Falcons assembled a strong side which won promotion and then won the Premiership at the first attempt.
“It was just an opportunity that felt too good to turn down really. You never quite know where any of these things are going to lead. It got me into professional sport.
“It was great fun, a combination of the old amateur ethos, with the new professionalisation of the sport all coming together which was fascinating.”
An injury in training in 1999 ended his career prematurely. He admits the success he had enjoyed softened the blow somewhat. His retirement also allowed the club’s emerging international star Jonny Wilkinson to take over full-time as fly-half.
“It was about time I went to be honest, I’d been around a bit too long. I was 36 at the time. I was getting more and more involved in coaching and management. So, in some ways, the blow was softened for me because I was ready for it.
“I probably should have given up playing a bit earlier. I was hanging on a little bit to help Jonny come through, because I played alongside him for a couple of years, when he was 18, 19. Then he was clearly more than ready to go past and I was done. So, from that point of view, I was lucky that I was already heading down the management route.”
With Rob as director of Rugby, Newcastle Falcons won two cup finals at Twickenham in the early 2000s. From there he moved into administration roles with the game’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union.
A career in management was not planned but emerged naturally from his roles on the pitch and the way he played. As well as captaining Cambridge at cricket, he also led England and the British Lions on a handful of occasions.
He believes leadership also comes naturally from playing at fly-half: “You’re very much a leader in the squad and the team because of the position you play and the calls you’re making. You’re in the heart of the team. You can’t not be a leader of sorts.”
Planned or not, he enjoyed being in the thick of things.
“I just wanted to be involved in what was happening – and how it was happening and what we could do to be better. It was just me, really. I didn’t overthink it. It was just something that came to me. I wanted to be a part of driving things rather than sitting at the back, and just minding my own business.”
By the end of his time at the RFU, he had spent 20 years in professional rugby. It was time for a change. He was keen to move into a chief executive role and interested in resuming his association with cricket. With outgoing Sussex CCC Chief Executive Zac Toumazi standing down at the end of 2016, a move to Hove presented the ideal opportunity.
Rob’s only previous association with Sussex was not an auspicious one. Playing against them for Cambridge in 1984 at Fenners, he was struck on the head by pace bowler Garth Le Roux. Fortunately, it didn’t put him off.
The brief was an exciting one. Toumazi had overseen the integration of professional, recreational and community cricket in the county.
“That was one of the massive successes of Zac’s time here. The merging of the amateur game and the professional game is the model that the ECB now want all counties to have.
“Sussex was one of the first do it. We’ve got the whole game under one roof, which is brilliant: the pro game, the women’s game, the amateur game, the community game, schools, the whole lot.
“Sussex is such a proud cricket county. There is so much cricket played in the county at every level. It’s just brilliant.
“It’s just a proper cricket county with a big history, the oldest county cricket club. We’ve been playing at Hove since 1872. It’s not a Test Match ground, but it’s a brilliant county cricket club. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Rob still lives in London but is in Hove most of the week. He quickly fell in love with Sussex.
“I spend quite a lot of time in West Wittering. I didn’t really know Sussex as a county that well until I came here. It’s a fantastic part of the world. The cricket club is a big part of the scene in Brighton and Hove and in Sussex generally.”
He still plays cricket occasionally, turning out for charity matches for the Lord’s Taverners and representing Sussex over-50s.
This year has seen an unprecedented challenge for Sussex CCC and all sports as they grapple with the COVID-19 crisis. Rob’s management team have taken steps to ensure the club’s long-term survival.
“This is about surviving and making sure that we do survive, which we will, and we take the tough decisions that allow us, whenever we get back to some kind of normality, that the club is able to continue.”