The real McCaw and his Deans dilemma
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Crusaders captain Richie McCaw, and coach Robbie Deans hold the Super 14 rugby trophy. AP Photo/NZPA, Ross Setford
Here’s an email I received last weekend before the All Blacks’ remarkable victory (they received no penalties until the 55th minute) against the Springboks at Soweto.
“Have you ever seen a better player than Richie McCaw? What an absolute icon of the game. Will we ever see someone that good again?”
That victory in South Africa by the All Blacks represented 100 Test victories in the black jersey by McCaw in 112 Tests.
I believe this number of Test victories and the ratio between wins and losses is unlikely ever to be replicated or bettered, even by someone like Dan Carter, the New Zealand’s back equivalent of McCaw in the forwards.
So far only 21 players in the history of rugby have managed playing 100 Tests and none of them have come close to McCaw’s incredible win-loss ratio.
Kieran Read, the next all-time All Black great in the making, has played around 40 or so Tests. It’s hard to see him going on to about 130 Tests which McCaw will probably achieve by the end of his career.
Colin Meads was voted New Zealand’s greatest rugby player of the 20th century. This title will stand for him as long as the All Blacks are remembered. He was a colossus as a player. For Australians there will always be the ignominy of his brutal destruction of Ken Catchpole, yanking his leg out of a ruck so brutally that Catchpole’s cry of pain could heard all around the SCG.
Off the field Meads is a charming man. On the field he was robust bordering on thuggish, which fitted in with the template of the rugby in the 1960s and 1970s where the enforcers got their retaliation in first. But aside from this, Meads was a tremendous runner with the ball, rather in the manner of the rugby league great Bob McCarthy. He was incredibly strong in the lineouts, scrums and mauls. He was tireless. Like McCaw (and Eales), he never played a bad game. He was always great. He was a match-winner and the right choice of the All Black of the 20th century.
It is early days in the 21st century. But even now it is unlikely that any future All Black will achieve on the field what McCaw already has achieved. There are seven Super Rugby titles (and counting), numerous Tri Nations victories, now The Rugby Championship 2012, two Grand Slam tours of the UK and the 2011 Rugby World Cup, together with a win-loss ratio that is so weighted to victories that it unlikely to be bettered at the Test level of the game.
And like John Eales (and unlike Meads) McCaw has achieved all this in rugby without once being accused of dirty play. And this despite the fact that he has been the target for innumerable cheap shots (as was Eales) which he answered in the best possible way by playing even better than the high level he was already playing at.
Take the incident of the eye-gouging by Rougerie in the last few minutes of the RWC 2011 final. This was a deliberate and tactical and cynical attempt to provoke McCaw to flay away and concede a penalty. Or if he kept his head, to blind him so that from the ensuing scrum he’d make a mistake, being blinded, and give away a penalty.
McCaw took some minutes to recover from the eye-gouging. He shook his head gingerly as he staggered to his feet. Took his place on the side of the scrum and played as forcefully and as accurately as he had throughout the final to see off the French challenge.
In his rugbiography, which was written with Greg McGee, a former All Black trialist (also a loose forward) and the author of a classic play about NZ rugby ‘Foreskin’s Lament,’ McCaw recounts how bitter he was about Quade Cooper’s deliberate kneeing of him after a ruck during a Test at Brisbane. He says the next time he got the ball he ran at Cooper to smash him rather than passing which was the better option.
‘I was disappointed in myself in doing that, letting it get personal,’ he writes.
The interesting and important aspect about this comment is that he never considered belting Cooper, which is an illegal play. But he did attempt to legally smash him which was the wrong play at the time, a consideration he immediately acknowledged to himself.
His comments on Robbie Deans as a coach have rightly been given a great deal of coverage in the Australian media. And on The Roar yesterday it provoked an interesting and informed discussion.
In summary, McCaw says he supported Graham Henry being re-appointed the All Blacks coach after the debacle of the 2007 RWC tournament because Henry was part of a package (with Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen) whereas Robbie Deans did not offer any assistant coaches in his presentation to the NZRU.
He also made the point: ‘Robbie doesn’t appear to want to be challenged by his assistants and won’t allow the kind of full-on debate that Ted encourages with Smith and Hansen.’
There is less to this, as a condemnation of Deans, than meets the eye on the written page.
I know quite a bit about the NZRU’s process of selecting an All Blacks’ coach following the debacle of the 2007 RWC tournament in which the All Blacks, for the first time ever, did not make the semi-finals. My knowledge comes from NZRU officials among other insider contacts.
The selection process was deliberately contorted by the NZRU’s chief executive Steve Tew to ensure that Deans, the obvious choice for the job given his super Super Rugby record, would NOT get the job.
Tew had a personal animosity to Deans that had its origins in the early days of the Canterbury Crusaders when Deans and Tew worked together on the franchise.
The brief the presumptive coaches were given expressly required them to offer themselves as candidates for the job. There was no requirement asked for about who the assistants might be. Deans presented exactly as he was required to do and then found in the meeting that most of the questions were about his possible coaching staff.
Moreover, Tew insisted the full board hear the presentations rather than the usual procedure of a committee of officials who had actual rugby playing experience at the highest levels.
The reason why this was such a crucial change of procedure was that the board would have been obliged to resign if Deans was appointed. The board had appointed Henry four years earlier. They had agreed to his every request, including taking players out of the 2011 Super Rugby tournament for 7 weeks to make super-athletes out of them.
This ploy failed. The integrity of the Super Rugby tournament was compromised with the long absence of the leading All Blacks from it. Moreover, in the 2007 RWC tournament itself, the All Blacks suffered a series of damaging injuries. McCaw has also revealed that the reason why the easy option of field goal attempts was botched in the quarter-final against France was because the All Blacks didn’t have a field goal option in the game plan.
The board had committed itself to Henry. If another coach was appointed, it meant that Henry had failed. And if it was officially accepted that Henry had failed, then the NZRU board which appointed and supported him, had also failed.
Moreover, Deans had a record that was so outstanding (four Super Rugby tournament victories at the time and an 86 per cent record with the All Blacks as an assistant coach with John Mitchell) he was the obvious choice to take over the All Blacks. This was not a similar case with England when a Clive Woodward was re-appointed after a failed 1999 RWC campaign, or Deans and the ARU before the 2011 RWC.
And Richie McCaw and his support for Henry? McCaw told Tew he’d be happy to play with either candidate (this means an acceptance of Deans) but his preference was Henry. Was there an element of the realpolitik in this answer. A new coach (Deans) would have possibly meant a clean sweep of the then All Blacks playing list and, in all probability, a new captain given McCaw’s self-acknowledged inept tactical response on the field to France’s tactics in the quarter-final debacle in RWC 2007.
Never overlook self-interest, even in the most admirable of players.
Henry, of course, justified the faith of the NZRU by getting the All Blacks up to win the 2011 RWC tournament. But, in my opinion, Deans would have achieved this with an even better record than that racked up by Henry. This is a hypothetical consideration, of course.
But it needs to be remembered that the last time the Crusaders won the Super Rugby tournament was in Deans’ last year with them in 2008. The rump of that Crusaders side, under Henry, performed relatively poorly in 2008 and 2009 for the All Blacks.
One of the reasons for this is that Henry continually rotated players, as if he couldn’t make up his mind who his best performers were. It is interesting to note in this context that McCaw believes that the current All Blacks, the squad of 2012, is the best he’s ever played for or captained.
And a main reason for this claim? No rotation.
Steve Hansen and Grant Fox (a selector but not a coach) are very clear who their best players are and they play them whenever possible. The term ‘best’ needs some amplification.
There is a shrewd horses for courses policy being used. At Soweto, a cauldron of antagonism against the All Blacks, the best New Zealand second-rowers were the two biggest All Blacks locks.
The tough hooker Andrew Hore was given the run-on jersey at hooker. And Hosea Gear, who is older, more experienced and stronger, was preferred on the wing to the much younger and less experienced Julian Savea.
Henry’s selection methods have been described in the NZ media as ‘random, obsessive, rotation policies’ as opposed to Hansen’s ‘consistency of selection.’
Deans has been accused of being a ‘fiddler’ when it comes to selection.
But this is unfair and misleading. When you have something like 24 possible contenders for a Wallaby jersey out, a fair amount of fiddling the books is required to get a competitive team on the books.
The fact is that Deans has an incredibly sharp eye for talent. He is a very good selector. He promoted Dan Carter in the Crusaders ahead of a then current All Black, Andrew Mehrtens. Kieran Read was promoted into the Crusaders quickly and despite his obvious talents Henry was slow to bring him into the All Blacks.
It was the Mitchell-Deans coaching duo that promoted Richie McCaw in 2002 to the All Blacks, despite the fact that he had spent the grand total of 8 minutes as a Super Rugby player for Deans’ Crusaders. The incumbent number 7 Josh Kronfield reckoned McCaw’s selection was one of the worst selections ever made for the All Blacks!
McCaw started for the All Blacks against Ireland at Landsdowne Road. At half-time, the All Blacks were well behind. But they stormed back in the second half, as they did at Soweto, to smash Ireland convincingly. The man of the match at Dublin? Richie McCaw.
The story of the real McCaw and Deans, in my opinion, is that of the sorcerer’s apprentice trumping his former master by using the insights and wisdom gained from him in his training days.
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.