Australia Wallabies Rugby: Reviewing the Robbie Deans Era

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Australia Wallabies Rugby: Reviewing the Robbie Deans Era
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

It has perhaps been inevitable since his failure at Rugby World Cup 2011, but it was finally announced earlier this week that the Robbie Deans era as head coach of the Wallabies is over. He will be replaced by Ewen McKenzie, who will take over the team for the upcoming Rugby Championship.

His reign as coach was certainly filled with controversy from both his adopted nation Australia, as well as his home country New Zealand. Ultimately he will be remembered as a failed coach, winning just one Tri-Nations in his six years in charge and failing to win either of the World Cup or the Lions test series.

It also included embarrassing losses to Scotland and Samoa, a failed Grand Slam attempt and an abysmal three wins in 18 games against the All Blacks which saw him fail to recapture the Bledisloe Cup.

His record is not compelling. But it is not quite as simple as that. 

It is key to remember what the state of Australian rugby was when Deans inherited it. After an earlier than expected exit from the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Deans was announced as the new Wallaby coach after being unwanted by his native All Blacks. The move was one that sparked controversy and produced a significant amount of divided opinion in New Zealand, many proclaiming themselves loyal to Deans wherever he went. 

At this time, Deans was something of a super-coach, having won five Super Rugby championships and making another two finals with the Crusaders between 2000 and 2008. Many tipped him to be the one to rebuild Australian rugby for the next World Cup after losing several key players at the conclusion of the 2007 World Cup.

This presented Deans with a true challenge. At the Crusaders he had the best talent in Super Rugby and it was just a case of using it correctly to win all of those championships. With the Wallabies he was faced with the task of developing raw talent and doing a lot with not as much. In a sense, this was going to reveal how good a coach he really was.

The trouble is, the key losses were huge, far more important than normal. In losing George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, he inherited a team that had just lost arguably the best nine-ten duo of all time and two of the best individuals to ever play their positions. Of course the halfback and first five-eighth are integral to any team, but having players of the calibre of Gregan and Larkham in these positions is a game-changer.

Given that these two had more or less monopolised their jersey's over the past decade, Deans was forced to start from scratch and find a new combination, which is never a recipe for success. Indeed, it was a task Deans never really completed, continually searching for his No. 1 first five-eighth right up until his last series. 

There was an obvious lack of depth in certain positions, which made it that much harder to replace key players. This also created problems when there were injuries and left the team highly under-manned at times. 

Indeed he did find a few gems, with Will Genia, David Pocock and James Horwill being the three most notables to emerge as world-class players during the Deans era, but there simply were not enough of these. 

He did not have the same amount of flair to choose from in the backline as past Australian coaches have had. The likes of Quade Cooper were too inconsistent to be a good choice, while in the midfield he was stuck with a steady group, but one which was rarely incisive or dangerous.

Kurtley Beale had his moments at fullback but was involved in too many off-field incidents and lacked form too often to achieve his full potential. On the wing Digby Ioane, Drew Mitchell and James O'Connor were all solid options, but were not in the same class as the Cory Jane's or Bryan Habana's of this world.

It all added up to a team that did not have the ability to penetrate on attack and the lack of a first five-eighth saw them unable to steer themselves around the field to gain field position. 

Up front they were not a lot better. They were renowned for having a weak scrum and never really settled on a looseforward trio. 

Sure, a good coach can develop a good team, but there is only so much one can do with limited depth when trying to compete with the best in the world on a regular basis.

All that said, they were never an easy-beat, not by a long shot. They were a team capable of getting up for one-off games and putting on a strong performance no matter what their form was going into the game. It was this that always made them such a threat and was why many New Zealanders considered them their most potent threat at the 2011 World Cup.

Indeed their three wins against the All Blacks could all be seen as somewhat significant. The first came in a superb display in Deans' first game against the New Zealanders, one which was billed as being Deans' chance to prove that he was the right man for the All Black job.

Two years later his side got up against a rusty looking All Blacks side that had won every game in 2010, a game in which the Wallabies were essentially gifted a win thanks to the All Blacks capitulating in the final five minutes. The third came a year later in the final game before the World Cup, where the All Blacks were without their form player in Jerome Kaino and were on the gruelling return trip from South Africa. 

On the other 15 occasions they lost. Two of the three that they did win came in circumstances where the All Blacks were either depleted or off their game. Only once did they really beat down on their arch-rivals and that came on an occasion where they were fuelled by the controversy surrounding the Deans-Henry saga.

And perhaps this as much as anything both hurts Deans' record, but sums up his tenure as well.

At the top level in the world of rugby, consistency is demanded and Deans' teams just did not bring this. Against Australia's biggest rival he failed far too often, while never really having a dominance over the northern hemisphere teams in the same way as the All Blacks do.

And unfortunately this will be what he will be remembered for. It may have been a case of wrong time, wrong place, with a lack of players in key positions and a handful of unfortunate injuries. But the record will show a lost Lions tour, a World Cup semifinal exit and zero Bledisloe Cups. Ultimately this meant that Deans had to be replaced, simply by virtue of the fact that something needed to be changed.

Had he walked into a team with Larkham and Gregan at the pivots, with the likes of Chris Latham at the back and Jeremy Paul at hooker, maybe things would have panned out differently. But he did not and that is what history will remember. 

Finally, let us look at what Deans has left his successor. The Wallabies are still ranked third in the world, which is not horrible in the grand scheme of things. They are a team that has some world-class players entering their primes in Will Genia, David Pocock, Israel Folau and James Horwill. But they still lack a first five-eighth, they still lack a solid scrum and they still do not possess the penetrative attacking threats in the midfield that past Australian teams have had.

The challenge for Ewen McKenzie is to fill these gaps and build on what Deans has left him. Good luck to him.

 

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