All Blacks coach Steve Hansen speaks about the situation surrounding Israel Folau.
Of current Wallabies it was Chris Latham who was most widely quoted in the media offering support for the appointment of Robbie Deans as Wallaby coach. This happened both before the appointment and at the time of it.
So far so good: it is not at all surprising for the media to be interested in the opinions of a senior Wallaby such as Latham on a matter like this, and nor is it surprising for an attacking player like Latham to be excited by the prospect of playing under Deans.
But then something surprising did happen: a few days after the appointment of Deans it was announced that Latham would be leaving Australian rugby during 2008. If Latham knew he was leaving, why was he so busy making public statements on the appointment of Deans, a matter that does not really concern him any more given that he will be leaving so soon after Deans takes up duty?
I believe the answer lies in the fineprint of the articles on Latham’s overseas signing, which reveal that he has been deliberating over this decision for months.
Given this, one has to be struck by the fact that Latham’s final decision was made almost immediately after the appointment of Deans: it is hard to believe this timing is a coincidence.
Indeed, on reflection it seems obvious that it was not a coincidence. Latham is the only Wallaby to have been shortlisted for the IRB’s presitigious Player of the Year award over the last two years. He is widely acknowledged as one of Australia’s most valuable players and as one of the most exciting players in world rugby. How could the ARU have allowed Latham to leave the roost without first getting the approval of the new Wallaby coach, whoever that person was? Imagine if you were the incoming Wallaby coach, you were a big fan of Latham, and you were appointed just a few days after Latham had signed to go overseas because the ARU was not even prepared to offer the same amount of money as his current contract? You would rightly be furious with the ARU.
Against this backdrop Latham’s public statements in support of Deans now make complete sense: he was angling for the new coach to issue a last-minute instruction to Pat Howard to up the ARU’s offer.
Evidently this did not happen. None of this is to say that Deans was driving the negotiation process, in fact he probably had nothing to do with it. But one has to assume that upon accepting the Wallaby position, one of the first things Deans was briefed on was the status of negotiations with Latham. One also has to assume that Deans told Pat Howard – we know that the two of them already have a good relationship – that as far as he was concerned there was no need to increase the offer.
Thus Latham almost certainly is leaving with the blessing of Deans.
An interesting corollary of this is that one cannot assume that Latham has automatic selection for what is already being touted as a nostalgic final season of test rugby for him. However Deans is clever enough to realise that it would be public relations suicide not to select Latham, so he will choose him. However Latham might not be the only person to wear the Wallaby 15 jersey in mid-2008.
Taking a wider view, what do we learn about Deans from this? Nothing that we do not already know: like all New Zealand coaches he places a big emphasis on wingers and fullbacks having high-end speed. This of course is Latham’s major weakness: he may be a linebreaker without peer, but he’s slow by interenational standards for back-three players.
Another thing about Deans is that he likes to have reliable defence from 1 to 15, as anyone watching the Crusaders over the years will know (for example, think of the 2000 Super 12 final in Canberra). This is relevant in that Latham’s other weakness is his defence. He is not a poor defender, but nor is he a strong defender, and in particular he can be lazy, as for example when he ended up costing Australia a very close-fought Bledisloe encounter in Brisbane in 2006. The score was 13-9 to NZ, whose only try came from Joe Rokocoko scoring down the short side after Latham botched a regulation cover tackle. (Of course the most memorable moment of that match was McCaw chasing down Australian winger Mark Gerrard from behind, something that is also unlikely to happen under Deans – whither Gerrard?)
I realise that Latham is an almost sacred figure amongst Queensland and Wallaby supporters, and the above is not to deny his singular talents. However he does have the indicated shortcomings, and they are ones that are seen as serious by the new coach.
If anyone doubts this, just look at how the career of Andrew Mehrtens ended at the Crusaders. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, there was nothing personal in Deans not selecting him throughout the 2004 Super 12 campaign. Rather, it was just that Mehrtens could not tackle and he had slowed down a lot with age.
So, just like Mehrtens, who also was a singular attacking talent with a prodigious boot, Latham now finds himself leaving a team coached by Deans and heading off to England. It is very difficult to believe that this pattern is accidental.
What is perhaps most surprising is that the Australian rugby media appears to have missed this rather obvious chain of logic. Either that or they are keeping silent because Deans is enjoying a honeymoon period – that too is possible.