Why Robbie Deans Was the Wrong Choice for the Wallabies
About four years ago, I was in a small township in the Waikato called Te Kauwhata. My friend was wearing a Wallabies jacket and a man approached us and said, "I'd be afraid of the Wallabies this year, they took the best coach we have."
For a while I was scared, because in his first match against his homeland, the Wallabies won, 31-19, and it looked like our grip on the Bledisloe was starting to loosen.
Fast forward to October 2011, the Rugby World Cup semifinal. Deans' most high profile game to date. The All Blacks outplayed their trans-Tasman rivals in every facet of the game, whether it be in the open field, the breakdown or the set piece. The All Blacks would win the World Cup, while the Wallabies would go home settling for third.
After the 2007 World Cup, both the All Blacks and the Wallabies had disappointing quarterfinal exits, and questions arose about their coaching situations. Deans was a favourite to win that job, but the NZRU decided to give Graham Henry a second chance. As a result, Deans jumped across the Tasman and became coach of the Wallabies.
Deans' resume speaks for itself, five Super Rugby titles and one NPC title. But Graham Henry's no slouch himself. He had a very successful tenure at my alma mater, Auckland Grammar, won four NPC titles and three Super Rugby titles. But Henry was guilty of being the coach behind the All Blacks' 2007 World Cup quarterfinal exit, and many people thought Deans would be a better man for the job.
Four years later, it looks like the NZRU made the right decision. Graham Henry did a great job with the All Blacks. Conversely, the Wallabies have not improved much since Deans arrived. Deans is not a great fit with the Wallabies, and here's why...
Talent in Canterbury
No disrespect to Deans' ability as a coach, but he had some pretty stacked teams down in Canterbury.
Greg Somerville, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Brad Thorn, Ali Williams, Chris Jack, Reuben Thorne, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Mose Tuiali'i, Justin Marshall, Andy Ellis, Andrew Mehrtens, Dan Carter, Aaron Mauger, Casey Laulala, Scott Hamilton, Leon MacDonald.
Reads like a possible All Black roster doesn't it?
Two of those players have been All Black captains, Reuben Thorne and Richie McCaw. Two of them are considered among the greatest of all time in their respective positions, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
Now of course Deans deserves credit for finding these players and developing them, but you cannot deny that having such talent at your disposal helped a lot. The winning reputation of that region has also led to many players moving to Canterbury and playing for the Crusaders. Guys like Ali Williams, Casey Laulala and more recently, Robbie Fruean, the Whitelocks and Israel Dagg.
The fact that Canterbury and the Crusaders are still playing at a very high level shows how strong the rugby in that region is, regardless of who's coaching.
Inconsistency at Skipper
During the Deans' rein, the Wallabies have had four regular captains: Stirling Mortlock, George Smith, Rocky Elsom and James Horwill.
Apart from 1987, every World Cup winning team had a captain who was an established leader. Names like Farr-Jones, Pienaar, Eales, Johnson, Smit and McCaw have held up the Web Ellis trophy. All of these players were captains for long periods of time.
Mortlock was the incumbent, but he was far from the player he once was and succumbed to injury in 2009, so it did make sense that Deans had to find a replacement.
George Smith certainly had the credentials: over 100 caps and experience as captain for the Brumbies. He even captained the Wallabies to a victory over the All Blacks. Unfortunately, he was planning on retiring from international rugby at the end of the year, which again left another void in the Wallabies leadership team.
Elsom couldn't seem to handle the pressure of the captaincy and lost his title in the World Cup year. His play slowly dropped off, leading to his eventual rein as captain ending in 2011. Sure he was a great player for the Waratahs and the Wallabies, but he wasn't even the captain of the Waratahs, so what leadership credentials did he have?
Horwill made more sense because he was actually captain of the Reds for a while. In fact, they were making big strides in '08 en route to a title in 2011. His early performances for the Wallabies weren't outstanding, but he definitely showed he was a better captain than Elsom in 2011.
The Wallabies were not playing very well before he was named captain, losing to Samoa and getting beaten up by the All Blacks. Deans waited until the final game of the Tri-Nations to name Horwill captain and they won the Tri-Nations as a result. But the fact that Deans waited until then to name him captain showed some indecision on his part.
Finding a captain can't be easy, but who knows how long Horwill will be captain? Deans should find someone who could serve as captain for a long time. He struck gold in the Crusaders with two former All Black captains, but in the Wallabies he hasn't managed to stay with the same leader consistently.
Deans has made some questionable selections and omissions during his tenure.
While it is a good sign that a coach trusts his players, sometimes a coach should know when a player is simply not good enough.
There have been a number of busts whom Deans has decided to stick to. Richard Brown was ineffective, and was probably best remembered for being thrown away by Jerome Kaino's fend. His successor, Ben McCalman, was much better with ball in hand but was not too great at the breakdown, as shown by his average performances at openside during Pocock's absence. Salesi Ma'afu was consistently penalized in the scrum. His replacement, Sekope Kepu, was not much better, being toyed with by Gurthro Steenkamp in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal.
Although injuries had a hand in forcing some of these selections, there was one selection gaffe that has affected the Wallabies the most and has no such excuse...
There is no doubt that Quade is one of the most physically talented players in professional rugby today, possessing a wicked sidestep and helping lead the Reds to a Super Rugby crown.
But you need more than just physical talent to cut it on the test stage.
Quade has shown an inability to deal with adversity, often making ill-advised decisions under pressure, just watch his beautiful pass against Ireland. He did lead the Wallabies and the Reds to championships in the Tri-Nations and the Super 15, respectively, but those finals were played in Queensland, his home stadium. Take him out of there, his performance is just not the same.
In New Zealand, where the Wallabies will play a few games a year, Quade's performance takes a significant drop-off. He's called Public Enemy No. 1, and not without reason. Anyone who knees the captain in the head is bound to meet some hostility from his home crowd.
He claimed he enjoyed being hated to such a degree, but he clearly couldn't handle it. Every touch of the ball he was booed, and every time he got smashed, there was a resounding cheer from New Zealand fans. Playing on the road is something you have to be able to do as an international athlete.
Test players also need to be well rounded. Cooper's tackling is atrocious. He shies away from contact and forces Deans to put Pat McCabe at 12 to compensate. While McCabe is a rock on defense, he does not offer the attacking prowess that someone like Berrick Barnes could offer. Barnes himself also plays at first 5/8 and could even be a better option, being a creative player, great goal kicker and solid tackler. But Deans decided to stick with Quade Cooper and as a result, Cooper's play may decide his legacy as the coach of the Wallabies.
Who knows how long the ARU will stick with Deans.
After some early successes, they don't appear to have moved forward. Deans was a brilliant coach in Canterbury but on the international stage he hasn't brought the same kind of success. His inability to find a long-term leader for the Wallabies and some questionable selections, most notably Quade Cooper, has prevented the Wallabies from moving forward and finally overtaking the All Blacks in the Southern Hemisphere pecking order.
However, Deans still has time to prove me wrong. He has unearthed some up and comers in Pocock and Genia. But as of now, his tenure with the Wallabies has been an up and down one that hasn't lived up to expectations.