SPIRO: Deans is back as Wallabies slay Welsh dragon
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Is it the end of the line for Robbie Deans?
After the unsettling loss to Scotland on Tuesday, Robbie Deans looked drawn, tired and under stress. It was the look of a coach facing the metaphorical gallows.
But four days is a long time in sport. On Saturday night he had the familiar cranky South Island farmer toughness and pride in his manner as he dealt with the media, after the Wallabies recorded an unexpectedly convincing victory over a confident Wales side at Brisbane 27-19.
A sense of that confidence came when the great Welsh finisher, Ieuan Evans, told the Fox Sports commentary team that ‘this is the best Welsh squad we’ve sent to Australia in 30 years.’
He also noted that the first Test was the best chance Wales had of winning a rare victory in Australia.
Touring sides generally have the advantage in the first Test. But this was or should have been accentuated for Wales by the fact that the Wallabies had played and lost a Test four days earlier in atrocious conditions. Berrick Barnes, for instance, was playing his third hard match (a Super Rugby game and two Tests) in the space of a week.
But it was notable that it was the Wallabies who finished the stronger when they stopped a Wales second-half fight-back in its tracks with a terrific try by Pat McCabe in the 67th, who broke the Wales defensive line with a searing inside break with the incisiveness of David Campese at his best.
I always enjoy the cornucopia of statistics that Greg Clarke, the Fox Sports rugby caller, gives us before a Test. Here are a few. Wales last won in Australia in 1969, 43 years ago. They last beat Australia at home in 2005 and 2008 when they were the reigning Six Nations champions. They are currently the Six Nations champions. In this 2012 Six Nations they scored eight out of their 10 tries in the second half.
In favour of the Wallabies, they have only lost to the All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium. To all their other opponents the stadium has been a Wallaby fortress.
And this pattern of a strong Wales second half held true in an engrossing Test. At halftime the Wallabies were leading 10-3, and could have been more.
Then the rightful Man of the Match, Will Genia, scored a sensational try. He broke from a maul, beat off the tackles of the props plonked nearby and then defeated the fullback, Leigh Halfpenny, again with a Campese-like in-and-out jink. The try was capped by booting the ball into the enthusiastic crowd. Great stuff.
Then Wales came back after 65 minutes of play to reduce the Wallaby lead to a point. It looked like the Scottish Test all over again as the Wallabies seemed destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
But with some fresh legs coming on as reserves, the Wallabies won possession from the kick-off and then slammed into the Wales 22, before McCabe scythed through to ensure that the Welsh dragon was well and truly slain.
The penalty count went against Australia 13 – 6 but I thought Craig Joubert had an excellent match, again. I regard him as the best referee in the world. He explains to players exactly why he is ruling the way he is. He is accurate. He is in favour of open rugby and his 50-50 decisions tend to go with the attacking side.
Nor does he have that annoying tendency of many northern hemisphere referees to punctuate long phases of play with an inevitable penalty.
Back in 1905 the All Blacks complained that UK referees stopped play with penalties because they couldn’t keep up with their free-flowing, athletic game. I sometimes think that this criticism is valid over 100 years after it was originally made.
Barnes had an useful game, but not much more than that. He still stands too deep in the pocket. You cannot get a backline moving quickly into attack with a number 10 standing deep all the time. However, I liked the field goal he knocked over in the 51st minute, which turned out to be the buffer when Wales came back at the Wallabies.
My theory on field goals is that teams shouldn’t wait until the last few minutes of the match to take them. By then the defence is awake to the possibility and usually scrambles a good response. When the option is taken, as it was by Barnes, early in the second half, he had plenty of time to get his kick in solidly. The points, as I’ve noted, came in very handy 15 minutes later when Wales would otherwise have scrambled into a lead.
Barnes did (rightfully) incur the displeasure of Rod Kafer when he put a grubber kick in when the Wallabies were mounting a series of charges inside the Wales 22.
Kafer also made the point, when Wales launched its second half counter-attack against what seemed to be a wilting Wallabies side, that it was at this stage of many of their matches that the Waratahs began to get tired and lose leads to more spirited and fitter opponents.
The point here is that the run-on Wallaby side had no fewer than seven Waratahs. Only one member (Pat McCabe) of the leading Australian side the Brumbies was in the starting XV. There were five Reds, the Force’s David Pocock (who importantly out-played Sam Warburton) and the Rebels’ Cooper Vuna (playing his first Test).
It is greatly to the credit of Deans as a coach that he got the best out of the Waratahs, who have mostly been out of form all season under the coaching of Michael Foley. We have to remember that Genia, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale all were picked by Deans when they were inexperienced players (Genia having played just three Super Rugby games).
When Deans is criticised as a coach it needs to be remembered that the most gifted players in the Wallaby squad last year were developed by him, rather than by the respective Super Rugby coaches.
Another example of Deans’ coaching prowess was the play of Adam Ashley-Cooper. For the Waratahs he has been, to put it bluntly, almost useless. But against Wales he was impressively safe under the high ball. His defence was excellent. And he ran the ball back from deep rather than play the Waratahs game of just booting the ball down the field.
As Deans promised, too, he gave Barnes a lot of runners to pop passes to. As a consequence, we did not see much of his aimless kicking game.
When the Wallabies kept the ball in hand they were impressive. Deans had worked out the sometimes disconcerting Welsh tactic of coming in from the outside on defence, the umbrella defence invented I think by the rugby league coaching guru Warren Ryan.
The Wallaby halves kept feeding the inside ball to runners like Digby Ioane, who had a whale of a time in attack.
Pre-Test, there was much made of the fact that Deans, after the loss to Scotland, had a winning ratio of 57 percent, the same ratio that saw Eddie Jones sacked.
But it needs to be remembered that Jones inherited a great team, number one in the world, from Rod McQueen, who had won the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the Tri Nations, the Bledisloe Cup and a series against the British and Irish Lions.
Deans, on the other hand, inherited a side that was number five in the world and falling, had no major trophies in the kit, and had been eliminated from the Rugby World Cup 2007 in the quarter-finals.
My take from this information is that Deans has done an outstanding job at a difficult time for Australian rugby. And here is another statistic that Greg Clark might throw into the mix on Saturday night when the Wallabies play Wales at Melbourne.
Last season Deans had a 67 percent winning record, despite the fact that the Wallabies lost the first game of the season to Samoa in an upset as unexpected and untimely as last week’s defeat by Scotland.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.