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Six Robbie Deans wins that actually mattered

Roar Guru
25th July, 2011
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2301 Reads
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Spiro Zavos recently wrote a column stating: “(Robbie) Deans showed once again his great talent in getting his team to get up to win crucial matches.”

I was happy with the Wallabies performance on the weekend.

They played very well in many respects. It was an excellent performance. But as a good friend correctly wrote: “… how many times have South Africa won in Australia in the history of the Tri-Nations? The answer is three times and not with a ‘B’ side. In fact, the last time they sent a ‘B’ side they lost that ugly 49-0 match at Suncorp Stadium.”

During Robbie Deans’ reign, the Wallabies have lost 10 straight Tests to New Zealand, many of them lost after leading at halftime.

Australia had the rare chance to win a Grand Slam, the first opportunity to do so since 1984. That tour included a loss to Scotland, the first since 1982, and a drawn game against a very poor Ireland.

Australia lost to England at home last year, a rare feat for England. And however you want to gloss over it, Australia’s loss to Samoa is probably the second biggest upset in Australian rugby history (after the famous Tonga Test in the early 70s).

And despite Australia’s loss to Samoa last week, many people (including myself) felt the Wallabies would beat South Africa with a strengthened side.

So Spiro’s comments about the Wallabies winning when it really matters struck me as odd.

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I could also talk about some of Deans’ bizarre selections over the years, but I’ll put that to the side.

As I began responding to Spiro’s column I began listing some of the landmark Tests I felt Robbie Deans has coached (there aren’t many!). These are six games that mattered, meant something to the Wallabies for the future, and showed improvement. I’ve decided to rank these games.

For what it’s worth, if Australia beat New Zealand at Eden Park in two weeks time, then that will be number one in my rankings.

6. Australia v Wales – Cardiff 2009.

Australia had lost the Grand Slam and were showing very little improvement. After David Pocock had been far and beyond Australia’s best player against Ireland in 2009, Robbie Deans decided to rest him for George Smith against Scotland. Smith unfortunately played a poor game.

This was George Smith’s last game for Australia, and he played terrifically. David Pocock played in the first half and resumed the dominant form he showed against Ireland. He later had to be taken off for a minor injury.

George Smith came on and took off where Pocock left off. I think George Smith retired at the right time, just when Pocock was on the rise.

Matt Giteau played his best ever game for Australia at five-eighth and received rave reviews from Welsh legend Barry John after the game.

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This was probably the most complete performance in the history of the Deans’ reign as coach.

5. Australia v South Africa – Cape Town 2008.

South Africa were playing poorly, and Australia started off the Tri Nations better than any team. But Australia hadn’t won in South Africa since 2000 when Sterling Mortlock kicked Australia to Tri Nations glory.

My lasting memory of this game was Australia having a good lead before Sterling Mortlock illegally kicked the ball out on the full, giving South Africa territorial advantage. South Africa scored a try off Mortlock’s mistake and got back into the game.

Mortlock looked angry and frustrated. Four minutes later how took the ball from about the five-eighth positive, looked around, decided to run around the ruck, found a hole, and scored a great individual try.

Mortlock was a champion. Like all champions he could just force something to happen against the tide of play.

Unfortunately the shine of this great win was taken off when the Wallabies were beaten 8-51 the following week – their worst ever loss. Deans was never criticized for that.

Nonetheless, Australia had always found it devilishly hard to beat South Africa in South Africa and this was a huge win that mattered.

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4. Australia v England – Twickenham 2008.

If ever there was a fight for respect, this was it.

Australia had been embarrassed by England at the Rugby World Cup. Australia was superior in so many ways to England, but they never laid any foundation to beat England. England’s forwards were supreme in every aspect.

What was sad watching that game was I felt the Aussie forwards were too tired to do anything around the ground. They looked destroyed from all the scrum resets.

Maybe the saddest moment for Australia in the game was when an English player knocked the ball in with a few minutes to go. I knew what would happen. Australia would give away a scrum penalty and England would gain territory.

That’s how sad and how bad Australia’s scrum once was. I fear Australia’s scrum might be a weakness at this year’s World Cup too.

The idea of getting the scrum feed is your team now has the advantage for the other team knocking the ball forward. But for Australia circa 2005-2007 it meant the other team had an opportunity to gain territory.

Few people were picking England to win that game, but I wasn’t surprised. I saw Australia’s scrum crumble against an average Welsh pack before this game.

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Come 2008 and the media scrutiny on Australia’s scrum was incredible. Al Baxter was given tremendous media attention, and sought-out for interviewing etc.

The game went better for Australia than expected. In fact I didn’t think Australia’s backs played all that well. Australia received many penalties and Giteau slotted them from everywhere.

Baxter played perhaps his greatest game for Australia – the one I’ll remember him for. Nathan Sharpe was the deserved man of the match, and was punching holes with every ball carry.

The Australian forwards left the field having dominated the England forwards.

3. Australia v New Zealand – Sydney 2008.

Ah how things can change in a week or two! Graham Henry was heavily criticized after this game. There were calls to have him dumped.

New Zealand had lost their first game to South Africa on New Zealand soil in a long time, and lost fairly comprehensively to the Wallabies in this game.

Three years later the scorecard reads something like: Henry 10, Deans 2.

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At the time it felt like Australia was turning a corner. Berrick Barnes was my player of the match by far. His kicking just nailed New Zealand to their own territory.

George Smith played his best game against New Zealand in years. Rocky Elsom was in his best ever form, and scored a bizarre try. Giteau played well too.

The aspect about the Wallabies game that helped them win was the way they exploited the ELV’s. In the first half Tiquri, Ashley-Cooper, Barnes etc all kicked several up and unders that landed just outside the New Zealand 22. This prevented Dan Carter from kicking out on the full.

After several kicks that couldn’t go into touch, New Zealand had the try and run the ball out of their territory, which they struggled to do. Australia capitalized from there.

For many Tests after this one, Australia’s big weakness was aimless, pointless kicking. I always looked to this Test as an example of purposeful, constructive kicking that enabled the Wallabies to play with shape and direction.

The euphoria after this game was incredible. Robbie Deans could not have been more loved, and Henry was under the pressure cooker.

As I’ve noted in the past, Henry’s response defined him as one of rugby’s greatest ever coaches.

2. Australia v New Zealand – Hong Kong 2010.

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There were scores of New Zealanders who felt this game was a dead rubber and that it didn’t matter. I never bought that. Richie McCaw looked gutted after the game. The All Blacks wanted to extend their incredible streak.

The All Blacks 10 Test streak against the Wallabies was one of the most frustrating things I’ve witnessed in rugby. I’ve always felt Australia should have beaten New Zealand twice in 2009 when Stephen Donald was playing at five-eighth and Dan Carter was injured. I don’t think many people realize how poor New Zealand played in those games. But there’s no excuse from me, Australia played worse!

There was that game in Brisbane in 2008 when Australia could have won the Tri Nations, but their defence let them down. How the Wallabies could switch off for 15 minutes like they did in a game that would decide the Tri Nations is beyond me.

There’s other games too, like the Sydney Test from last year where the Wallabies lost by a point. Yet again another lead thrown away!

There were so many Tests where the Wallabies had thrown away good leads that by the time Stephen Donald was lining up for the match-winning penalty I was furious. Donald missed it.

The Wallabies were close to their try line and when the ball was kicked downfield. Kurtley Beale fielded it, and to his credit, beat one or two tacklers to launch one final attack.

The ball went to the other side of the field where James O’Connor scored the match-winning try and kicked the winning conversion.

Because this match broke the hoodoo, it was a game that mattered.

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It also mattered because the Wallabies threw away another good lead, but they found a way to win. There were fantastic tries to Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell.

Kurtley Beale’s form was again a highlight for me, as was David Pocock beating McCaw to the breakdown a few times.

1. Australia v South Africa – Bloemfontein 2010.

People forget that under Robbie Deans’ reign as coach, it wasn’t until the game prior to this in Pretoria that Australia obtained a Tri Nations bonus point for scoring four tries.

I watched the Wallabies play New Zealand in Melbourne last year and was incredibly frustrated by their inability to attack. The Wallabies just didn’t know how to score tries. Quade Cooper missed that game.

In their next game against New Zealand, the All Blacks were lauded for their defence. No doubt it was a brilliant defensive effort, but Bob Dwyer perfectly surmised it when he said it was the type of attack defences love.

But as soon as the Wallabies hit South Africa something in them changed. More than any moment in Robbie Deans’ reign, last year’s South Africa tour was when I really saw some improvement in the Wallabies.

It hurt watching Australia lose in Pretoria after having such a large lead. But the loss hurt less than it should have because I was happy to see the Wallabies playing attacking, positive rugby.

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Before the tour to South Africa I didn’t see any improvement in the Wallabies. It’s one thing to lose a Test, it’s another thing to lose a Test and fell like the team isn’t improving.

But Australia improved in leaps and bounds in South Africa last year.

The placement of Beale at fullback injected more running into the Wallabies than they’d had in years.

James O’Connor found his feet at international level playing next to Beale, and was involved in some breathtaking counter-attacks.

Quade Cooper displayed his abilities wonderfully too. One try Beale showed by taking an inside pass off O’Connor came after Quade passed a beautiful 20 metre pass to Adam Ashley-Cooper.

Some of the tries to Wallabies scored in South Africa last year were breath-taking. And of course the ending couldn’t have been more incredible, after Beale had made two mistakes (including one falcon), he kicked a tremendous penalty to win Australia the game.

Of course the Wallabies blew an unassailable lead yet again in this game. But their ability to score from anywhere was incredible.

For three years the Wallabies backline had been a puzzle. But something about Cooper and Beale helped it fall into place. Right now in 2011 Australia’s backline looks more settled than it has in about a decade!

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The only dilemmas now are who should play at 12 (Berrick come back!), and whether Ashley-Cooper is good enough to remain at outside centre.

This was the Wallabies first win at altitude since 1963 and the Wallabies first win at Bloemfontein since 1933.

This is the best example of Deans winning a game that mattered.