ROBBIE DEANS (pt.2): No longevity for players distracted by money
Is it the end of the line for Robbie Deans?
In the second of his two-part exclusive with Robbie Deans, Brett McKay explores the man behind the clipboard and finds a pretty normal guy who doesn’t mind cracking a joke and who sees the good in rugby like the rest of us.
This was quite a coup, speaking to the Wallabies coach one-on-one like I did the other week.
On a sensational supposedly-winter morning in Sydney, flanked by the Harbour Bridge and a million-dollar view, you quickly get the sense that Robbie Deans loves talking about rugby, albeit when away from the press-conference setting.
And I may never conduct another interview in a better location.
A man notoriously economical with his words, my worry going into the interview was that we’d get through a somewhat lengthy list of questions in record time, and with no real insight gained. Colleague Andrew Logan had even suggested I work hard on my questions so as not to ask anything that could be met with a dead bat.
I need not have worried; Robbie was feeling talkative, and what I thought might be a 15 minute chat blew out well beyond the half hour. By contrast, in the made-for-media announcement that followed, he was done in a few minutes and never strayed from the message: the Rugby Championship is a tough competition, but we’re ready for all-comers.
Robbie Deans the rugby man, as opposed to Robbie Deans the professional coach, is exactly the sort of thinker of the game that I’d quite enjoy having a beer with. Knowledgeable, passionate, yet quick witted. And that’s not to say that I wouldn’t like to have a beer with the professional coach, either, but it’s apparent that the former is a lot more relaxed than the latter. For obvious reasons.
But there’s still a bit of enigma about him. Where in one breath he rightly corrected my question about striving to win a Bledisloe as both player and coach (Deans was John Mitchell’s assistant coach when the All Blacks regained the Cup in 2003), with the next he dismissed the notion of achieving the feat on different sides of the fence with “[It’s] only for the trainspotters, mate. It’d have enough meaning just to get the job done.”
Opinions on Deans the Wallabies Coach and even on Deans the person – which is strange considering the percentage of commentators that would have met him personally – are never far away. Plenty have opinions on what should happen in the lead-up to a match, and plenty more again voice theirs in the aftermath. After a loss it can continue for days and even weeks.
This begs a question, the answer to which I’ve always been curious: just how aware are he and the team of all the online forum and social media commentary?
“Oh, we’re aware,” Deans laughs. “We live in this society!
“It’s part of what we do, and my approach has always been that it’s a good part. Interest is good; no interest is not good, so it’s great that people have an opinion. And obviously, there’s a lot of access now for everyone to express their opinion.
“You’ve just got to look at it in the right light. Interest in the game is what the game is all about, and the public and the public’s support is key for us. They’re like the 16th man. We play for our people, and that’s often the point of difference. You’ve only got to look at the home and away stats to understand the meaning in that.
“I mean, do we feel the negativity? Of course we do, because our friends and family hear it, and they don’t enjoy it but you’ve just got to concentrate on what’s important for us and keep chasing those things, otherwise it will derail you.”
However, that’s not to say that any negativity is always taken badly. Indeed, Deans admits that public opinion in good times and bad is “a good source of earthing”.
“The two biggest distractions are success and failure,” he explains. “It’s easy to concentrate on the negative, because we are geared pretty negatively as humans, but the positives can also be a distraction, they can also shift your focus from what’s important.”
So the message there is keep Roaring, people.
Despite all this, and the virtual green light the coach gives Wallaby supporters to keep our comments coming, to keep the playing and coaching groups honest, you do have to wonder what sort of an impact all the talk – especially the speculation about Deans’ future – has on those closest to him.
“No you can’t [keep the family away from the speculation]. The key is how you spend your time. I’ve always tried very hard not to take the game home, and that’s not easy because you flick on TV and there it is,” Deans laughs. “But I think to a large extent I’ve been pretty successful at that.
“Balance is important. We emphasise that with the playing group, so we’ve got to practice it ourselves.”
And it’s this notion of life balance away from the game that sees the fatherly figure within Deans emerge. There’s an obvious sense of pride when he talks of his players having success away from the game.
“Some of the blokes who are lucky enough to have a career in the game misunderstand the fact that it is only a brief window, and [those that do recognise that know] it’s something they’ve got to put a lot of time and effort into and have made really good strides,” Deans says.
“So guys like Patty McCabe passed an exam with Distinction on the Wednesday prior to the final Test [against Wales]. Rob Horne got a High Distinction in a paper in that same week. Those things are important.
“They have the luxury of an income while they’ve got a window of opportunity to prepare for life after the game, because the game doesn’t cater for them for the rest of their days which are hopefully a lot longer than their playing days.”
So when the balance is right, is it possible for Robbie Deans to sit back and relax in front of a game at home? Can the Wallabies coach put the feet up and enjoy a game ‘unanalytically’, with a beer and the remote?
“Yeah, I can. And I really enjoy it, when that rare opportunity presents itself”, he happily offers, with more than a hint of suggestion that it doesn’t happen as often as he’d like. “Yeah, no problem switching off. You have to learn that art as well.”
Some months back, one of you Roarers posted a link to a YouTube clip of the third Bledisloe Test of 1984, played at a dry, dusty Sydney Cricket Ground, which would be Robbie Deans’ last Test as a player. Among my research for this interview, I’d found some other clips of Deans the player, including footage of the ‘Cavaliers’ tour of South Africa in 1986. Prior to seeing these clips, I’d never seen any of his playing days at all.
What stood out for me – apart from some renditions of the Haka that can only be described as ‘token’ – was Deans’ goal-kicking technique. There was none of this exaggerated shoulder drawback, no running on the spot, barely even any elevation on the ball. While Deans would use a bit of sand once kicks got out beyond the 40 metres, generally it was just a heel into the ground, stand the leather ball up on its point, run in on the 45° angle, and just kick it. Over the black dot, most of the time.
It was as simple and unassuming as was the game in that era.
“No tee!” the former fullback proudly interjects. “There wasn’t much gear supplied [back then]. I think I only came back for my last year of provincial rugby because they were going to supply a jacket!”
“The game was pretty straightforward; it still is,” Deans says. “The sides that thrive still function with the same amateur principles, because they’re the point of difference elements. It’s not the flash visible stuff.
“People get distracted by the fact you can earn an income out of the game. Players that get distracted by that don’t achieve longevity. And it’s a good thing that groups that still play for each other … and [those that] master that art thrive.
“Super Rugby’s living proof of that. It’s not the main economic centres dominating Super Rugby. Sure the Blues won a couple of titles early … but since then there’s not too many major centres have won it. It’s more community-based.”
Coincidently, this is a thought that Jake White has also aired in recent times, as yet another Super Rugby title goes away from SANZAR’s financial strongholds of Sydney, Auckland, and Johannesburg.
The Lions Tour will be upon us in less than a year now, and is obviously a series that Deans is looking forward to, albeit without letting himself get too far ahead. Few Wallaby players get a shot at the best of Great Britain and Ireland in their careers, and even fewer coaches.
“It’s a great opportunity for all parties. For the game in Australia; for the playing group, it’s a special moment in their playing careers, one that a lot don’t get. They’re very conscious of that.
“And that’s where June was a great precursor to that. Same coloured jerseys. Probably the same coach and a large number of that [Welsh] playing group, possibly.”
But the dry Deans wit is bubbling way here, too, casually offering “…although I did suggest to Warren [Gatland] that perhaps he should pick all the Scottish side,” in a comment that is sure to divide the aforementioned opinions on Deans the man.
“It’s going to be a great event,” he continues. “For those that were lucky enough to experience it, 2001 was huge, but this will be bigger again. We were in Cardiff last year when they first launched the travel packages, and they had 26,000 hits on the first day.
“So I hope we’ve got a good strategy to ensure that it’s not just red in the crowd.”
They say in professional sport that there are two kinds of coaches: those that have been sacked and those that are about to be. And it’s true that if some of you had your way, Robbie Deans would now be in the former of those categories. Equally, there’s plenty of support for the former Crusaders mentor to see out his current term, and indeed, to take the Wallabies to the 2015 Rugby World Cup and beyond.
But what of the man himself? What are the Robbie Deans’ plans beyond the Wallabies?
“Mate, it’s the nature of the industry, I don’t have too many,” Deans chuckles, in an admission that not everything in this coaching game can be tightly controlled and scheduled. The last question I ask him on this idyllic day is the first one where he doesn’t have a proper answer.
“It’s one area where I haven’t practiced what I preach!
“To be honest, when I entered coaching I thought it was going to be a brief window, and I entered it under duress in all truth. But I’ve been very lucky.
“I generally don’t have any plans, I’ll probably be put out to pasture at that point; I’m starting to get a bit long in the tooth,” says a man a few weeks shy of his 53rd birthday.
“You don’t know when that comes; it’s like the players. You just don’t know when your last outing is, and the key is to approach every outing with that in mind and make the most of the experience and the opportunity.
“And I’ll cross that other bridge when it comes.”
Whenever that day may arrive. John O’Neill’s recent ‘titles equal extension’ comments may or may not be a motivating factor for Robbie Deans, but he certainly can keep his destiny in his own hands heading into the 2012 Rugby Championship.
Deans has suggested that the Bledisloe Cup and maybe even the Rugby Championship could well be decided in these next two weekends in Sydney and Auckland. Whether his journey at the helm of HMAS Wallabies is as well remains to be seen.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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