The case of Robbie Deans, Steve Hansen and the NZRU

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    New Zealand Canterbury Crusaders coach Robbie Deans - AP Photo/Rob Griffith
    On Saturday the Sydney Morning Herald’s sports section ran a photo of Robbie Deans, the Crusaders coach who is now in line for the Wallaby job, seemingly pointing out something to a group of Super 14 coaches and referees.

    The story behind the photo provides a compelling reason why the NZRU has made an outstanding mistake in virtually forcing Deans into the Wallaby coaching job, if he wants it.

    I was standing only metres away from Deans when the photo was taken. One of the group was taking some Sydney Grammar boys through the new ELVs for the 2008 Super 14. Deans had pointed out a mistake about where the non-throwing hooker had to stand. Paddy O’Brien, the IRB’s referees boss, intervened in support of the co-ordinator. Deans continued making his point which O’Brien finally agreed was correct.

    As the discussion went on, Deans made a point of turning to the coaches when something was settled and saying: ‘Are all the coaches agreed?’ Then he’d lead the discussion into the next point. After the coaching session finished Deans was interviewed about the All Blacks job. He was non-committal. But concluded his interviews by saying, ‘It’s the people’s game, the game belong to them not the officials or the coaches.’

    This vignette says a lot about Deans as a coach. He is very well-informed about the laws, which gives him an edge when it comes to developing tactics. He is stubborn when he believes he is right which helps him in planning strategies about the development of his squad. He is a natural coach, in that he has a passion for imparting knowledge. And patience. He’s told me about the hours he spent with Brad Thorne teaching him the intracacies of lineout play using an old boot as a ball.

    He admired Thorne for his Christian-based life style and his honesty in rejecting an All Blacks jersey when he was still undecided about returning to rugby league. Deans is very much a coach of players doing the right thing on and off the field (in the style of Wayne Bennett, who he resembles in manner).

    Deans’ record with the Crusaders is virtually without parallel for coaches in similar competitions across all the major sports. With the All Blacks going out in the quarter-finals of the 2007 RWC for the first time ever under Graham Henry, why did the NZRU re-appoint a failed RWC coach and reject the Super 14’s most winning coach?

    Three factors are involved, in my opinion. The aftermath of the John Mitchell era of 2001 to 2003 when Deans was the assistant coach: the traditional and often vicious Auckland-Canterbury divide in NZ rugby politics: and a split in the Canterbury group.

    Mitchell’s team famously lost to the Wallabies in the semi-final at Sydney in the 2003 RWC. It went on to defeat France for third place. It is no secret that Mitchell-Deans believed that if they’d made the final the All Blacks would have won that match. In the semi-final they refused to play Tana Umaga, who was recovering from a knee injury, and played Leon McDonald, who had rarely played at centre. Stirling Mortlock’s interception of a pass to McDonald was the decisive play of the match.

    In the fall-out to the RWC loss there were accusations against the Mitchell-Deans team that sponsors were unhappy with their treatment and resentment expressed by former senior All Blacks like Taine Randall, Anton Oliver and Christian Cullen that they’d been treated without respect. Umaga came out strongly last week against Robbie Deans getting the job.

    The Auckland-Canterbury divide is the great fault line in NZ rugby, as bad as the old NSW-Queensland divide used to be in Australian rugby politics. In 1991 the All Blacks were beaten in the RWC semi-final at Dublin by the Wallabies, and by a split in the camp with the Auckland All Blacks listening only to Aucklander John Hart and the Canterbury All Blacks listening only to Alex Wyllie.

    This divide remains with Henry representing the Auckland camp and Deans the Canterbury camp. So it was no surprise that Sean Fitzpatrick and Grant Fox, All Black and Auckland legends, and members of the 1991 side, supported the decision to re-appoint Graham Henry.

    Finally, for reasons that have never been made public there has been a split in the Canterbury camp over Robbie Deans. The manager of the All Blacks David Shand and the incoming chief executive of the NZRU Steve Tew have both been described as being hostile to Deans.

    Tew played a straight bat during the process of appointing a new coaching panel for the All Blacks for 2008 to 2010. But when questioned about the possibility of losing Deans to Australian rugby Tew remarked: ‘We have plenty of good coaches left in NZ.’ But great coaches like Robbie Deans? I think not.

    The vote for re-appointing Henry was 7-1, with a board member from the King Country representing the minor unions voting for Deans. Significantly, the chairman of the Crusaders franchise and deputy-chairman of the NZRU, Mike Eagle, explained his vote for Henry (which was expected to be given to Deans) in this way: Henry had a much better team of coaches around him.

    So stupidity by the NZRU has allowed an Australian David Nucifora to be coach of one of NZ’s strongest franchise and tap into the intellectual property of NZ rugby. Warren Gatland, regarded as one of the best coaches in the world, was kept out of the Blues job and has gone to coach Wales. And now the intellectual property developed by the best rugby franchise in world rugby, the Crusaders, has been virtually handed over to Australian rugby.

    And why has the NZRU board made this stupid sequence of mistakes? Partly to cover their own blunder in endorsing the failed re-conditioning program which took 22 All Blacks out of last season’s first seven rounds of the Super 14. But more, in my view, to protect the interests of one Henry’s team who is aligned to Steve Tew.

    So here is another Fearless Prediction: In two years time, provided the All Blacks do well in their tests (which they should) Graham Henry will stand down as chief coach but will remain on the coaching staff and Steve Hansen, a coach under Deans at the Crusaders, will become the head coach.

    You heard it first here.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    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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    The Crowd Says (55)

    • December 10th 2007 @ 4:58am
      Sam Taulelei said | December 10th 2007 @ 4:58am | ! Report


      Agree with you and made similar observations and comments in another thread. I would add that I and many others had hoped that Henry would step down this year and leave the coaching position up for grabs between Hansen and Deans.

      Henry, who is a great coach (and you have mentioned this yourself Spiro), has divided NZ with his unpopular policies and I believe the angst at losing another great coach in Robbie Deans to the Wallabies would be eased if Steve Hansen was in the top job and not Henry.

      Hansen is a fine coach in his own right and when he had the Canterbury NPC team in 2001 they played an un-Canterbury like brand of attacking rugby, using the full width of the field and attacking even from within their own 22. That team featured the burgeoning talent of Richie McCaw and the Mauger brothers. He hasn’t had the same opportunities with a Super 14 team or has as high a profile as Deans but he is highly regarded by players to have been coached by him in NZ and Wales.

      Hansen and Deans are very similar in their holistic approach to coaching young men as well as sharing the same clarity and understanding of the laws. There must be something in the water of the Avon river as Canterbury seem to endlessly produce outstanding talent in coaches and first fives.

      I disagreed with the NZRFU decision to reappoint Henry, but I don’t believe that he is a poor coach or that Deans is substantially better than him. Was the decision not to appoint Deans stupid? That can only be answered with whichever country holds the World Cup aloft in 2011.

      If your prediction becomes true Spiro and so far neither of us have had much success in that area, then it sets up a mouthwatering prospect of Deans v Hansen in 2011, two former coaching colleagues, two favourite sons of Canterbury and both at the top of their game.

    • December 10th 2007 @ 4:58am
      Damian said | December 10th 2007 @ 4:58am | ! Report

      Is it only a coincidence that we are appraoching Christmas?

    • December 10th 2007 @ 10:05am
      Terry Kidd said | December 10th 2007 @ 10:05am | ! Report

      Thanks for this Spiro. I knew virtually nothing about the politics of NZ rugby, now I know a little more. Tis heartening to see that not just Oz and SA rugby have their trials and tribulations in SH.

    • December 10th 2007 @ 12:24pm
      Peter L said | December 10th 2007 @ 12:24pm | ! Report

      Spiro, I think you may be over simplifying this. I have no doubt that the traditional north/south politics of NZ rugby played a part, fuelled by the added draft provided by the AKL/Canterbury bellows, but I don’t think that is all.

      When the ABs returned from this world cup they were met by a radically different public reception to previous RWC losses – raputure, applqause and adulation abounded which the ABs right in NZ, but normally after an early exit from a RWC there is a period of grieving where the public vent and expel the demons – that was missing this time.

      I also think the NZRU has changed their tack a bit and recognised that one loss on the international stage does not signal that the rugby sun will fail to rise the next day, and that to lose the experience gained from that loss is quite a cost to bear. NZ rugby has lost vast tracts of experience in the immediate wake of the RWC (not (just) because of the loss, more because of vast piles of Pounds and Euro’s being thrust at players), to also loose the coaching talent and experience would be a huge hole to fill in just four years.

      So I think there were many factors that led to the decision, yes, including political decisions but also involving pragmatism in maintaining continuity in experience, and quite possibly also to ensure that lessons learnt (such as no “conditioning program” but lots of game time) are not lost.

      It is always over simplifying to find “a” reason for decisions such as this. I think that for each of the 7 for votes there would be a dozen factors that were weighed in their minds, and I am sure that the same dozen factors would not be found in any 2 of those voters.

      Is it the right decision? There is no answer to that – but I do think it is a good decision. Appointing Robbie Deans would, IMHO have been a BETTER decision, but I think the ABs uynder Henry will continue to be a force on the international rugby stage.

    • December 10th 2007 @ 12:38pm
      Nixon Gill said | December 10th 2007 @ 12:38pm | ! Report

      Well written again Spiro and thanks for the update on the politics in NZ I didn’t realise it was still raising its ugly head internal bickering will never lead to a unified body or rugby success.

      In terms of Deans becoming the Wallabies coach I can only applauded it & you say Spiro all that IP is heading our way – Giddy Up.

      Post RWC 2007 when Deans is signed (and to use a tennis term) its Fifteen-Love to Australia!!

    • December 10th 2007 @ 12:38pm
      Jack D'Arcy said | December 10th 2007 @ 12:38pm | ! Report

      Very good analysis Spiro-it’s good to see that even a Wellingtonian can be so objective when it comes to a talented Cantabrian.
      This coaching decision has to be one of the most staggering decisions ever made by a sporting body-to think it was made by a vote of 7-1 is unbelievable!!
      What sort of intelligence test do you have to pass to be appointed to the NZRU?
      All along whilst fielding fielding criticisms on his “cotton wool” conditioning approach and rotation policy Henry kept saying “judge me on what happens at the RWC”-and then what happens?- he gets re-appointed by a 7-1 margin!
      Robbie Deans has conclusively proved to be the outstanding coach in world rugby(who can question his credentials other than the one and only Eddie Jones?)This is why the ARU want him and why they were prepared to await the outcome in NZ. If he gets the Wallaby job as expected I as a loyal,biased and long time NZ supporter will feel very pained and very concerned. However,one can’t blame Deans for going to an employer where his outstanding talents will be both recognised and rewarded.

      This situation has many similarities with recent Australian politics–everyone knows that John Howard should have gone 12-18 months ago and handed the baton to an extemely competent and much younger collegue–let’s hope for NZ Rugby’s sake the final outcome is not the same.