The Trials and Tribulations of Dingo Deans

I’ve decided, probably against my better judgement, to wade in to the debate about Robbie Deans’ coaching ability and his future with the Wallabies, as calls for his head grow more and more resounding across the Tasman.

After seeing his side bundled out of the World Cup in the semi-finals against the All Blacks, then seeing his countrymen dish out two consecutive beatings to his team in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship, Deans has come under fire for his inability to topple the World Champions. But, as Steve Hansen and some brave, outnumbered Aussie scribes have mentioned, judging an international coach solely on his performance against the All Blacks inevitably lines them up for failure.

To be honest, there are arguments for and against Deans retaining his role. His coaching resume read spectacularly prior to taking up the role, having had experience with the All Blacks and gained acclaim as the Crusaders most accomplished coach in their history, no mean feat in a franchise that is the most successful in Super Rugby.

But, while the ARU is making a point of mentioning the fact that they’re still ranked Number 2 in the world behind the All Blacks, the reality is that they are anything but the next best team in international rugby. Had Wales had a little more self-belief they probably could have won their June series in Australia 3-nil, instead of being clean-swept themselves, and the dismal performances of the Wallabies in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship give me no reason to think they won’t get touched up by the Springboks, and severely tested by the Pumas. In fact, I suspect they will lose in Argentina, and forever carry the ‘honour’ of supplying the South Americans with their first ever win in the Southern Hemisphere’s premier tournament.

In the Wallabies’ defence they have been without some key players, including James O’Connor, Rocky Elsom and James Horwill, and the loss of the world-class David Pocock in the first round of the Championship must have been a bitter pill to swallow. But all teams experience injuries and adversity; the key is having depth, and a system in place where players can slot seamlessly in to the side when needed.

And for a lack of depth and an inability to implement efficient systems, the coach and his management team must shoulder the bulk of the blame. But the fact of the matter is that the winning and losing of a test match occurs on the field, and the players must surely accept some responsibility for the results. Regardless of whether they did or didn’t have an effective game-plan, individual players made poor decisions, kicked aimlessly and failed to take their opportunities in both games against the All Blacks recently.

So there is only so much a coach can do if he hasn’t got the playing personnel. John Kirwan got the Blues’ Head Coaching role on the back of having achieved absolutely nothing of note with either Japan or Italy, but those making the hiring decisions at Auckland Rugby obviously excused those results for the simple fact that Japan and Italy don’t have very good players. Obviously Australia has deeper playing stocks than either Italy or Japan, but, while they might have 7 or 8 top-notch, world-class players, they don’t have talent waiting in the wings who can step up, and they have far too many weak areas around the paddock to compete on a regular basis with well-rounded sides like the All Blacks and the Springboks.

That’s not to say that coaching a highly successful side doesn’t have its own pitfalls, and I think too often at the moment people are down-crying Deans’ record with the Crusaders by heaping all the praise on a star-studded team, and none on his ability to coach. With a team who has experienced success in the past there is the weight of expectation on everyone’s shoulders, and the propensity for players to become complacent, but Deans’ managed to mitigate those threats and mould the most professional, effective and consistent side the Southern Hemisphere has seen to date.

A lot of what Deans has tried to do with the Wallabies has been mirrored by Mark Hammett’s methods at the Hurricanes. Hammett, who played under Deans at the Crusaders and obviously shares a similar philosophy when it comes to team harmony and cohesion, realised there were problems with the personal and culture of the team, and despite much consternation from a number of players and the Wellington rugby community as a whole, he stuck to his guns, making the tough decisions and crafting a side that he believed could generate results.

The real difference is that Hammett was successful, while Deans has not been so. Just like Hammett, Deans was forced to cull experienced players early on in his coaching tenure, becoming quickly aware that player power had got out of control within the Wallabies’ environment. But while the Hurricanes have thrived this year, and the players that Hammett kept and remained loyal to look like they are thoroughly enjoying every minute on the paddock with their teammates, the Wallabies look completely uninspired by Deans’ coaching methods.

Sometimes a coach’s inability to get the best out of his players comes down purely to personalities, and it would seem that Robbie Deans just does not connect with the Australian players. It’s possible they don’t respect him because he’s never worn the Australian jersey, or maybe they just don’t like the concept of a foreigner coaching their national side. Whatever it is, it appears inevitable that he will leave his role as coach of the Wallabies in the near future, whether by his own volition or not, and there will be plenty of other organisations keen to tap in to his experience and knowledge.

I don’t know whether there is an immediate career in New Zealand for Deans. Surely a Super XV Head Coach role is the only position he would consider, and with John Kirwan having secured the Blues job those all seemed locked up for the near future. There’s quite a bit of bad-will directed at Deans in New Zealand because of his decision to cross the ditch, and perhaps some time coaching in Europe would allow the New Zealand rugby public to re-evaluate their attitude towards him. Cantabrians would no doubt welcome him back in a heart-beat, but the rest of the country would probably prefer to see him prove himself again, possibly in charge of a side like Wales, Ireland, or even Scotland, as Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland have all done. But wherever his career heads from here, I am sure that Robbie Deans will look back on his tenure in charge of the Wallabies as a huge learning curve!

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