Robbie Deans and Wallabies must beat Springboks at Perth
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Australia rugby union coach Robbie Deans speaks with players Berrick Barnes and Nick Phipps. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
At 11am on Sunday I got an email from a New Zealand businessman who has lots of contacts and is generally well-informed about rugby politics. “Just got told Robbie will be sacked on Monday. I suspect it’s true.”
Later in the day he emailed, “Well it looks like John O’Neill can fight off the sacking calls a bit longer. The TV commentators were also sure Robbie was gone. But the media wasn’t as blood thirsty as I thought they would be after the game.”
On Friday I was interviewed by Brendan Telfer on New Zealand Radio Sports. He was quite insistent that Deans needed the Wallabies to defeat the All Blacks to avoid being sacked. I pointed out to him that the Wallaby coach had a contract taking him through to the end of 2013, after the British and Irish tour next year and another round of The Rugby Championship.
Telfer did not mention it specifically, but I would think that his questioning was based on what has been called in New Zealand “an extraordinary tirade” from the former Wallaby coach Alan Jones against Deans’ coaching methods and lack of success since he was appointed in 2008.
Jones suggested the Wallabies would be better off if Deans “remained in bed rather than travel to the ground”, and that the “structured approach” of the Wallabies play was stifling the flair of the players.
We need some history here. When Deans was appointed in 2008 he had won his fifth Super Rugby tournament with the Crusaders. The Wallabies were the fifth-ranked side in the world and in danger of collapse.
For most of last and this year they have been number two in the world, although the Springboks could move past them on the back of their fortunate 16-16 draw against the Pumas at Mendoza.
The fact of the matter is that in 2008 there was no genuine candidate available to the ARU to take over from John Connolly. Jones was one of the Australian candidates who applied with any pretension of being up to the job. But how much time would he have been able to devote with his highly successful broadcasting career?
During the first Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987, while still in the amateur era, Jones refused to allow his players to do their day jobs. But he was unavailable to his team in the mornings while he presented his radio program. Players complained about this afterwards and pin-pointed the absence of the coach as the main reason they did not win the tournament.
Last time the job was up for grabs, the only viable candidate other than Deans was Rod Macqueen. But there was no way Macqueen was going to come back. He carved out the most successful record of any Wallaby coach, but his last year or so was agony as he endured ridiculing and scoffing from senior players.
This was player power at its most obnoxious. And it was the same player power that destroyed David Nucifora’s career at the Brumbies, where he coached them to a Super Rugby tournament victory, despite the team forcing management to sack him early on in the season.
Deans has won just under 60 percent of his Tests with the Wallabies. They were third in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, after being forced out of 2007 tournament in the quarter-finals. This season they defeated Wales, the current Six Nations champions, in three successive Tests.
The Wallabies have also defeated the Springboks in their last four encounters. This includes a Test win at altitude, the first time the Wallabies have done this in 47 years.
And the last two Tests lost by the All Blacks were to the Wallabies, at Hong Kong and Brisbane.
There is no escaping the fact, though, that it is the lack of success by Deans against the All Blacks, with 14 losses out of 17 Tests since he became the coach, which is really hurting his cause.
Like many other rugby writers, I guess, I am getting many nasty emails about how the New Zealander Deans is actually a stalking horse for the All Blacks. Anyone who knows Deans, and the circumstances of his leaving New Zealand rugby, will dismiss this for the nonsense that it is.
The emphatic 22-0 loss by the Wallabies at Eden Park, the first time in 50 years the Wallabies have not scored a point in a Bledisloe Cup Test, has to be put in context. The Wallabies have not won at Eden Park against the All Blacks since 1986. The All Blacks have now won 30 straight Tests at Eden Park since their last loss in 1994 against France. The Wallabies have not won in New Zealand against the All Blacks since 2001. They have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003.
And to make matters even more difficult for Deans and the Wallabies, this year they are facing a side that is probably the best All Blacks side since 1987. This is a side that has won a Rugby World Cup, as the 1987 side did. It has firepower around the field in every position, on attack and defence.
Here are some interesting statistics. The top three tacklers for the All Blacks were Liam Messam, Richie McCaw and Aaron Smith, all with eight. The top tacklers for the Wallabies were Micheal Hooper with 19, Sitaleki Timani with 15 and Nathan Sharpe with 14.
Hooper and Timani are new Wallabies this season. Where are Scott Higginbotham, Will Genia and Dave Dennis in these statistics? Timani’s play is an example of what Deans has continually done in his Wallaby stint, and that is to get excellent play out of players who have not been rated in their own Super Rugby side.
Quade Cooper, almost invisible on Saturday night, and Kurtley Beale are the two outstanding examples of players who originally flourished when Deans promoted them.
The top three All Black ball-carriers were Sonny Bill Williams with 16, Israel Dagg with 12 and Hosea Gear with 10. The top three Wallaby ball-carriers were Sitaleki Timani with seven, Stephen Moore with six and Digby Ioane with six.
The top three with metres made for All Blacks were Israel Dagg with 60, Corey Jane with 55 and Hosea Gear with 55. For the Wallabies, Digby Ioane 39, Adam Ashley-Cooper 37 and Sitaleki Timani 15.
The potency of the All Black back three are obvious from these two lots of statistics. By inference, too, the statistics provide a condemnation of the Wallabies’ kicking game, especially that of Berrick Barnes who kicked away far too much ball, given the fact that the All Blacks were totally dominating the Wallabies in the rucks and mauls.
It seems to me that the All Blacks are a much better side under Steve Hansen than they were with Graham Henry as head coach. Admittedly, Henry set up the systems and selected most of the players now starring for the All Blacks. But under Hansen their defence is more dynamic and attacking.
They deliberately do not contest the high ball they kick. They allow the catcher to come to ground and then they smash him and drive through to win the ball.
Their front-line defence, too, is literally awesome. It was noticeable that Cooper, who likes to play flat, was forced to go deeper and deeper into quarter-back territory, to get even a moment of time before the black hulks were trying to knock him over.
A consequence of this intimidating, hard-shouldered, shuddering (for the ball carrier) defence is that the Wallabies did not get a point on the board, although it must be said that the Wallaby captain Genia made the mistake of twice turning down easy shots at goal when the Wallabies were well behind.
Memo to Genia: Always take the points.
It should be remembered, too, that Ireland were kept scoreless in their third Test against the All Blacks which they lost 60 – 0.
And, most importantly, the Wallabies conceded only one try to the rampant All Blacks. It is all very well saying that the All Blacks bombed any number of tries. They did. However, the defence of the out-played and out-gunned Wallabies was brave and well organised, and forced mistakes from the All Blacks. In the last 30 minutes of the Test, the All Blacks were kept scoreless.
This ability and courage of the Wallabies to keep on keeping on deserves credit. As Deans pointed out in a very sombre media conference, no side in the world could have lived with the All Blacks on Saturday night. I doubt whether any other side would have restricted the All Black invaders to a single try.
Alan Jones had a great response when he was under the hammer after an admittedly rare Wallaby loss when he was coach: “The dogs are barking but the caravan moves on.”
This is the only sane response Deans and the Wallabies can make after Saturday night. In two weeks’ time the Wallabies play the Springboks at Perth. I think there will be a couple of changes in the forwards and a couple in the backs. A problem that must be addressed is the lack of tries the Wallabies are recording, with six in six Tests this season.
The Springboks have their own problems. They were extremely lucky to draw with the Pumas. The only try they scored came from a charge-down by Francois Steyn after the Pumas, leading 16-7 and putting the Springboks under intense pressure, were guilty of complacent clearing from a ruck.
In my view, the Wallabies should defeat the Springboks at Perth. They must do this. They were more impressive in losing easily to the All Blacks (although the score-line was only 3-0 after half an hour’s play) than the Springboks were in drawing with the Pumas.
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.
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