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Review of Deans' tenure at the Wallabies

Roar Guru
10th July, 2013
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Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe is congratulated by coach Robbie Deans. AP Image/Dave Hunt
Roar Guru
10th July, 2013
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2361 Reads

With all of the negativity that has surrounded his tenure, I thought I might try and write my view of Robbie Deans the man and his tenure as Wallabies coach.

Robbie Deans is a very typical South Island farmer, so I thought it might do some good to start here to help those who are interested to understand the person behind the role.

The Deans family are steeped in history and legend in the Canterbury region of New Zealand; the Deans Brothers were the first Europeans to settle in the Canterbury region, with the oldest surviving building on the Canterbury Plains the original homestead.

His great-uncle Bob Deans was one of the ‘Originals’, the first New Zealand team to tour the Home Counties in 1905 and had his potentially match-winning try disallowed in the only loss on that tour, against the Welsh.

Born in Cheviot (population 390), Robbie Deans quickly showed the skills and knowledge of rugby that would later see him play 146 matches and score a then-national record 1641 points for Canterbury.

He would play only five Tests for the All Blacks, a fact that galled many Canterbury supporters.

But Deans still had a major influence, scoring 50 points including key goals against the 1984 Wallabies to win second and third Tests.

After a playing career from 1979-1990, he went on to almost instant success as a coach, winning the NPC championship in his debut year, 1997 Canterbury’s first in 14 years. His assistant was none other than Steven Hansen.

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Appointed manager of the struggling Crusaders in 1997, they would go on and win two titles before he was made head coach in 2000.

From then until he left to join the Wallabies, the Crusaders would win five Titles and only miss the finals once under Deans.

His Crusaders teams set records for highest score in a match, the most, season, consecutive, and consecutive home wins, most tries in season, highest log points and the only team to not only win every match in one season, but also score 30 points or more in every match that year including the semi-final and final.

Like most South Island farmers, Robbie Deans has always been a man of few words.

But like so many before him, Deans has a very sharp mind and astute understanding of rugby tactics.

A brief history of New Zealand coaches shows this formula has often proven successful and polarising with greats like Grizz Wylie, Laurie Mains and Steve Hansen suffering criticism about coaching styles and communication skills.

This is perhaps the area he suffered most in Australia; the more urban Australian culture often doesn’t gel well with the strong and silent types, with a preference for expression and explanation.

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Fans often struggled to understand the direction he was taking their team and vented frustration when it wasn’t along perceived traditional Australian rugby values.

Always a pragmatist, Deans understood to win Test rugby you must first win ascendancy up front and get front-foot ball.

He set about trying to mould the running Australian style with a more hard-nosed pack.

Success would come immediately, winning his first five Tests including one each against the All Blacks and Springboks.

But this would prove to be short lived with a New Zealand team looking for redemption from the 2007 Rugby World Cup failure and featuring many once in a generation players Australia would lose the next 10 fixtures between the two.

It would be this record that perhaps would define Deans coaching of the Wallabies more than any other.

He would coach the Wallabies 18 times against the All Blacks, winning only three.

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But it was losses to Scotland (twice) and a rising Samoa (a fate recently shared by Wales, Scotland and Argentina) that caused many of the Wallabies supporters to lose patience long before the fateful final Lions Test.

But to measure Deans on these results alone would be selling both he and the players who served under him short.

During that same period only South Africa have a better record against New Zealand, and England and France are the only other teams to taste any success against the All Blacks.

His coaching tenure also featured some fantastic highlights a Tri-Nations title in 2011, the first since 2001 and only Australia’s third of all time.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against South Africa will go down as one of the greatest backs-to-the-wall performances of any Wallabies team.

A first-ever win at altitude in South Africa, a record win against France, eight wins in a row against three-time Six Nations champions Wales.

He took an ageing team and introduced some brilliant new talent, some of it obvious in Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau and James O’Connor.

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But either way the next coach is going to get the benefit of names such as Liam Gill, Michael Hooper, Jesse Mogg, Christian Lealiifano, Cummins, and Benn Robinson, all now with Test experience.

And while some of his controversial selections didn’t pay off (O’Connor) some did.

Deans risked his reputation on Pocock over Smith, and he picked Genia after not even a complete season of starting at the Reds.

His record reads 74 Tests for 43 wins, 29 losses and two draws a win/loss ratio of 59.45 percent.

This compares to Australia’s all-time ratio 50.45 percent, and in the professional era of 64.44 percent.

Against the All Blacks Deans’ record stands at 18 matches for three wins, 14 losses and one draw, a win/loss ratio of 19.44 percent.

Australias’ all-time record against New Zealand is 29.41 percent and in the professional era 31.52 percent.

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This has coincided with New Zealand experiencing 10 percent lift in their overall win/loss record as well.

Leave the Kiwis out of it and his record comes in at an impressive 40 wins from 56 matches, or 71 percent.

Rod McQueen’s legendary 79.1 percent was also set during a period when the All Blacks only won 67 percent, a relatively small number.

So perhaps it was his own country that ended up being his downfall.

But failure to beat regularly what will perhaps go down as the best All Blacks side in history, and to be then unlucky enough to face them more often than any other side in history is not a true measure of his abilities or his final success.

Whether any coach could have done a better job is going to be a matter of opinion.

But the challenges he faced – injuries, lack of depth in the two key positions of flyhalf and tighthead prop, a culture of player power, and some questionable player discipline – must be factored in to any consideration.

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To Robbie I say well done, and the best of luck in your next coaching venture.

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