When the end came, it came suddenly for Robbie Deans. Everyone appeared to know that he would be sacked in the wake of Australia’s series loss to the British and Irish Lions in July 2013 – everyone, that is, except for the head coach himself.
As it turned out, the axe would have fallen whether his Wallaby charges had won or lost, so the fate of the series was immaterial. Jake White and Ewen McKenzie had been interviewed for Deans’ job in the week before the deciding third Test was played.
No wonder then that in his autobiography, Red, Black and Gold, the chapter title devoted to that turbulent period was ‘Fed to the Lions’.
“It didn’t end in the manner that I would have preferred,” Deans said in 2014 before the book was released.
“Things were going on behind the scenes.
“On reflection now, that was disappointing that I think it became clear over time, certainly after the fact, that things started to surface – Bladesy’s [forwards coach Andre Blades] comments – and there was obviously a lot more going on than I was aware of.
“That is disappointing because rugby’s a team game and no alignment [means] no outcome invariably.”
Members of the team leadership group had known about Deans’ departure before the final Test, well before he was given the official order of the boot by then-ARU CEO Bill Pulver two days after the Wallabies’ momentous 41-16 defeat to the Lions in Sydney.
No wonder the Wallabies “vanished”, to use Deans’ own word, in the second half of that contest, as he outlined in the book itself:
“What probably summed it all up was the contribution of the leadership to that [post-game] meeting. The only thing that they offered was to ask whether there would be cab charges available to cover the cost of transport from the airport to their homes!”
Robbie Deans was the first foreign Wallabies coach in the professional era, and only the second Kiwi since coaching appointments began in 1962. During his 74-game tenure, he posted a respectable 59 per cent win rate and Australia were the number two rated nation for three of his six years in charge.
That is a better record than Eddie Jones two appointments before him, and better than his two successors since, Ewen McKenzie and Michael Cheika.
But in rugby terms Australia is not New Zealand, and the Wallabies were certainly not the Crusaders, with whom Deans had built his considerable coaching reputation. The Crusaders succeeded (and continue to succeed) because they are in a state of perfect alignment, both within their own organisation and in relation to the NZRFU outside them.
Issues for Deans arose over the lack of control over player contracts, the apparent autonomy of the high-performance unit run by David Nucifora, and the perception of fluctuating support within the Union itself.
Flip the coin over to the other side, and the Australian rugby public had issues with Deans’ structured approach to the game and exclusion of Quade Cooper. Those doubts in time matured into a suspicion, articulated by ex-Wallaby fullback Greg Martin, that Deans was, in fact, a double agent sent over by New Zealand to wreck Australian rugby!
Now Martin is at it again. He told Fox Sports that “I don’t want another Kiwi coaching the national team. I’m hearing a terrible rumour that Dave Rennie has been virtually signed”.
This time he was speaking about the current coach of the Glasgow Warriors, ex-Chiefs boss Dave Rennie.
All of which suggests that, if Rennie has indeed already signed on the dotted line, life will not be easy on either side of the Tasman. In terms of the rugby coached in both nations, there are some solid reasons why the graft of Kiwi-on-Wallaby does not take readily.
The potential problems can be distilled in the contrasting attitude to the notion of width on a rugby field. The most successful Australian teams have always been characterised by a compact approach. Alan Jones’ Grand Slam-winning side in 1984 used the Randwick backline alignment, where the backs were all compressed on the side of the field closest to the set-piece:
Take note of the following reel at 2:40, 3:40 and 5:05, with both wingers receiving the ball in between the posts and half of the field still open for support; and at 2:55 and 3:30, with number 10 Mark Ella making a short link pass and then wrapping around the receiver.
Likewise, back in January, I explained how Rod Macqueen’s great Wallaby team of the late ’90s and early ’00s kept attacking play in between the two 15 metre lines until a definite opportunity presented itself out wide.
In contrast, attacking play in New Zealand, both in the Super Rugby regions and in the All Blacks, is all about exploiting the full width of the field as a basic principle. You spread the offence in order to stretch out the defence and up the tempo, which generally suits the high aerobic conditioning standards of all Kiwi players.
It is this fundamental attitude that Dave Rennie has taken with him from the Waikato to Scotstoun, and which he will import to Sydney if he is indeed appointed as the next Wallabies head coach.
Rennie’s wide-open approach was nowhere better exemplified than in Glasgow’s two back-to-back European games against Saracens in the 2018-19 European Champions Cup. Saracens won the first (the last match in the group stage) 38-19, then backed it up with a 56-27 victory over the Warriors at the quarter-final stage. That is a total of 46 points scored but 94 conceded.
Rennie’s Glasgow caused Saracens’ defence more problems than most with their ability to use the full width of the field right from the start of an attack – and indeed right from the very beginning of a game:
From the very first lineout, Glasgow spin the ball wide. The objective is typically Kiwi in flavour: give the Warriors’ outside backs a shot at outmanoeuvring their defensive opposites one-on-one utilising their superior skill-sets:
There is no advantage in numbers here, it is Glasgow’s 14, 15 and 11 on attack versus Saracens’ 13, 14 and 15 in defence. The point of difference is Glasgow fullback Stuart Hogg’s ability to skirt David Strettle and engage the last Saracens’ defender, number 15 Liam Williams:
After the initial breach has been made, the finish is delivered by the overarm offload from left winger Rory Hughes back into a classic support line by halfback Ali Price. It is a try which any New Zealand side would be justly proud of.
Rennie’s charges went to extraordinary lengths to preserve the chance to move the ball wide against Saracens’ strong rush defence:
More than 20 metres separate the last attacker (the right winger out of shot beyond Hogg) and the base of the previous ruck.
Glasgow cashed in the dividend for their extreme attacking depth on the very next play:
Quick hands from the inside backs (Adam Hastings and Sam Johnson) release the outside speed of Hogg, with the finishing touch again supplied by the inside support line from the scrumhalf (replacement Greg Horne).
Glasgow showed absolutely no fear in putting their attacking heads in the mouth of the rush in either match:
If Sam Johnson’s 12-metre delivery off his left hand is even slightly off the mark, the ball will be intercepted by the Saracens left winger, defending high and upfield. Here is the fateful moment, frozen with the ball in mid-air:
Dave Rennie trusts the skills of his backs to make the play work, but he was not always so lucky with the outcomes:
On a rush from the outside edge, play-side winger Strettle does not worry at all about the two attackers he has cut loose outside him in the 15-metre channel. He is always looking in directly at the passer, waiting for his moment to interrupt the route between distributor and receiver:
That 13-metre attacking depth is not close to being enough to outdistance the blitz. Get it wrong, and you have to pay the piper.
Because of the all-out emphasis on attacking width in New Zealand, defensive systems have evolved to defend from the outside-in, numbering up on the widest attacker first. Rennie has also used this pattern with Glasgow, and its deficiencies were amply shown up over the two matches against Saracens. Here is a simple example from the pool game:
The Warriors have numbered up on all of the short-side attackers, but the bigger line spacings between defenders creates confusion close to the ruck. Neither of the first two Glasgow players knows who is supposed to be marking the Saracens number 14 when he hits the seam between them, and the result is another easy try for the supporting halfback.
A more complex example occurred in the quarter-final, after a couple of Saracens hits into midfield:
When the ball comes back from midfield, the near-side Glasgow backfield defender spots the danger but comes up onto the widest attacker, leaving an easy gap underneath him for centre Brad Barritt to gallop through and score untouched.
If another Kiwi is appointed to the Wallabies head coaching role, Rugby Australia can ill-afford a repeat of the Robbie Deans scenario. Attitudes on both sides will need to change for the graft to take successfully.
The Greg Martin-type response of a Kiwi shouldn’t coach the Wallabies surely has to be the first item to disappear from the menu. There has to be universal acceptance of, and support for, Dave Rennie’s appointment in the Australian rugby community, and from its governing body, for it to work out.
On the other side of the slate, Rennie will have to adjust many of the coaching attitudes and even systems he learnt in New Zealand in order to be successful with the Australian players at his disposal. I do not believe the Australian rugby psyche is as responsive to the fearless, wide-open attacking approach Rennie will bring with him from the Chiefs, via Glasgow.
Likewise, his defensive systems may have to change to take into account a wider variety of Test-match opponents, and the tighter arm-wrestles which tend to take place between top-tier combatants.
It is a tall order, but if Rennie is up to the job he may set a trend in motion which opens Australia up to an inflow of foreign coaches and coaching IQ, which can only help the sport progress further in the country. That is a development which is sorely needed.
Editor’s note: Since publishing this article, Dave Rennie has been confirmed as Wallabies coach, signing a four-year deal with Rugby AU.