Robbie Deans has shown he can walk a wobbly tightrope but there’ll be no safety net in June when the Lions are unleashed.
In the biggest year for Australian rugby since the money-spinning 2003 World Cup, Deans’ job goes on the line when the British and Irish Lions tour Australia.
He’s already been somewhat fortunate – courtesy of grinding backs-to-the-wall wins in Perth, Rosario, London, Florence and Cardiff – to stay on for his sixth season as Wallabies coach.
But with his current two-year contract expiring in 12 months time, Deans’ chances of pressing on to the 2015 World Cup rest heavily on the three-Test series against a hungry Lions squad focussed on ending a 16-year drought.
It would be no mean feat to beat them and the tourists should be bolstered by the nucleus of an exciting English outfit which dished out a dominant 38-21 upset of the world champion All Blacks this month.
But Australia will also have to show some style, as well as results, to guarantee Deans a new deal at a time rugby is battling in the football code wars.
Bored fans have been turned off by pedestrian, predictable play, which was also trotted out in Super Rugby’s Australian interstate derbies.
Under Deans, the Wallabies’ 2012 play was ugly, uninspiring and excruciatingly underwhelming – a stark contrast to their proud reputation as entertainers.
Fifteen tries from 15 Tests – their worst return in 33 years – doesn’t paint the full picture but it says a lot more than the bare record of nine wins, five losses and a draw.
To be fair to Deans and his players, a long injury list hamstrung them as they dropped to No.3 in the world rankings.
That they recorded nine wins – including three unconvincing efforts from their last three encounters in Europe – is testament to guts, character and emergence of players like Michael Hooper, Sitaleki Timani and Ben Tapuai.
Deans can also thank the radar boots of Berrick Barnes and Mike Harris, whose goalkicking prevented the Wallabies’ 2012 record ending in the red.
But guts, character and penalty goals aren’t enough against the best teams.
Four of their nine victories came against Wales – three of which almost went the other way. Only one came against a fellow top-four side.
It says a lot about the Wallabies, and Deans’ game strategies, that their best performance was a tryless 18-all draw in the Bledisloe dead-rubber against all-conquering New Zealand.
Creativity has been replaced by field position in a stodgy, kick-happy backline that is unable, and often unwilling, to run the ball effectively.
Such an approach has infuriated past greats like David Campese, who has consistently called for Deans’ head.
Irreplaceable halfback Will Genia, skipper James Horwill and backline marvel James O’Connor – all sidelined by serious leg injuries this year – are crucial reinforcements for the Lions series.
Controversial playmaker Quade Cooper may have finally settled on a new contract with the Australian Rugby Union but it remains to be seen whether Deans will select him for the Lions series.
He’d likely have some ground to make up with Wallabies teammates following his bombshell claim in September that the team environment was “toxic”.
But the Wallabies badly need the X-factor that Cooper, when at his best, provides.
“He is exceptional. You see the rubbish the Wallabies are dishing up, they need him back,” said former Wallabies fullback and Fox Sports commentator Greg Martin.
“South Africa and New Zealand are still scoring tries and we’re not even trying.”
The issues don’t end there for the ARU, who want to take more control of how much their leading stars play.
There’s a significant divide between the governing body, currently in caretaker mode as they search for a new CEO to replace John O’Neill, and the states, noted by former Sports Minister Mark Arbib in his review of the game.
Each union also must win back the fans or the code will continue to wilt.
To do that they mostly need tries, through a return to positive and pro-active rugby.
Long-suffering NSW Waratahs fans will have hopes yet again that their team will turn the corner and provide some genuine excitment.
Fortunately early indications under new coach Michael Cheika are promising.
The Queensland Reds will aim to rediscover their 2011 title winning mojo with key halves combo Genia and Cooper putting serious injuries behind them.
This year’s surprise packets the Brumbies should be better in their second season under Jake White but can’t hope to fly under the radar, especially after recruiting David Pocock.
The Melbourne Rebels have to add some consistency to the moments of brilliance so often featuring Kurtley Beale and O’Connor.
Another long hard season appears in store for the Western Force with no Pocock and a lack of backline firepower despite some creative recruiting.