I like straight talkers. Most New Zealanders are that way inclined, and so a chat with Keith Robertson, the coach of the Glasgow Caledonia Reds, is split between on and off the record, straight to the point, and peppered with the odd, well-intentioned, sweary word. These are omitted from this article, but you might just get the picture. My favourite message from Robertson is that, unlike Bill Shankly, he treats his sport as not nearly as important as life and death.

It so happens that at the team's press conference on Wednesday it was announced that they had as their aim the winning of the European Cup. If it takes place, and that was scoffed at by some. ''What do people want. Do they want us to say we aim to be fifth?'' he asked. ''We'll give it our best shot. Our aim is to win it, and I think the players have to believe that and believe in themselves.''

But what if his team loses games? The All Blacks are in death throes having lost two on the trot - couldn't Scotland's rugby fortunes be turned around with just the odd win or two to ease the pains of professional rugby? ''Look,'' says Robertson, taking a huge deep breath. ''I was watching the TV after one of Scotland's losses to Australia, and it was all doom and gloom. Then there was a report of a famine in Africa. It was hammered home to me then that there really is no comparison. A loss in sport is a loss, you pick yourself up, examine why you lost, and then go forward.''

Warming to his theme the boss of Glasgow rugby took a swipe at football. ''In the World Cup people talked about the pressure Romario was under,'' he said, resignedly. ''What a load of utter nonsense.'' Nonsense, by the way, wasn't the word he used. ''He's earning millions to kick a ball. The Prime Minister of a country doesn't earn that and he has to run the place. Don't talk to me about sporting pressure. The bloke with no money in Drumchapel has more pressure than any rugby player. Winning is important, and I feel sorry for John Hart in New Zealand, but every country would love to have the All Blacks' record, and they can't win for ever.''

As we talk, I put myself in the place of a current player. So, you are one of the lads picked for one of the two squads, in this case Glasgow Caledonians. Look at the season. The big hits start next week with the arrival of Richmond, who play at Hughenden on Tuesday night. Then there is, or there isn't, a European Cup. But look at November, when games come against Canterbury, New Zealand Maoris, and South Africa. Sleepless nights? The coach hopes not. ''I suppose we have to keep them relaxed as they look forward to the season,'' he says. ''But it is a very big season, and I don't understand the people who are saying that somehow we are going to be involved in meaningless games. Even Otago warm up for their Super 12 with games against Wellington Hurricanes and Canterbury Crusaders. You play games to get you ready for the big ones, and there are no easy games this season. I stress that. There

are no easy games.''

Robertson is clear on the club-versus-district debate. But, again, that is off the record. He's also clear that at no time - as Fraser Stott has suggested - are the players saying that they are bored. ''It's no different to the way it is in New Zealand. NPC players are told five weeks after that competition if they have a Super 12 place. They have one-year contracts too. One of the hardest jobs we are going to have is in selection where we have 14 capped players, 16 very good ones besides them, and we can field only 15. I am in charge of a team with huge capabilities. I can see that they are hungry for action, and I have been surprised at how hungry they are after a hard tour. We gave them the day off on Thursday, but I saw five of them out training. I like the professional approach of this side, and we have some young fellows who have gambled on a career in rugby, which most youngsters would

take, and good players thrive on competition.''

So far training has been weights, skills, speed sessions against electronic timing clocks, body fat measurements, discussions on post-rugby careers with specialist experts, and more recently rugby sessions. All for a season which, if the fixtures are what they promise, will bring top level conflict a plenty.

The first sign we will have as to whether Scottish rugby is turning the corner is when this combined team steps out at Hughenden on Tuesday, hopefully to give Richmond a real fright. And if they lose? Well, to quote the coach: ''Rugby has to keep its perspective. A loss is not the end of the world.''