28 Aug 2012

Opinion: Australia's Robbie Deans Conundrum

Robbie Deans, the Wallabies' rugby union coach, has been receiving a fair bit of cop over the last few weeks with regard to Australia's poor performances against the All Blacks in the opening two rounds of this year's Rugby Championship.

A lacklustre effort in Sydney followed by an emphatic nilling at Eden Park (for the first time in 50 years), locked the Bledisloe Cup in the NZRU trophy cabinet for yet another year on Saturday (and what's more, the Bledisloe is sitting next to the glistening William Webb Ellis Cup too).

That's been a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for some Wallabies supporters and the knives have been coming out as fans and past players a-like look to deflect their woes.

'Dingo Deans' - the foreigner in the ranks is the one to blame for many. Is the criticism warranted though?

Deans is the best man for the job

Deans ultimately is the decision maker for this Australian side. He has sole control over selection, tactics and the general direction of the team, so it is only natural that questions be asked of him when results don't pan out quite as expected.

The two matches against the All Blacks obviously didn't help his cause with the Australian public. No fan wants to see their team lose to their biggest rivals. Being nilled just rubs more salt into the wounds. Deans has even been labelled a 'trojan horse' by some as a result of the losses; supposedly 'helping to destruct Australia from within'.

Let's be real for a moment though. Australia haven't actually held the Bledisloe Cup in over 10 years and Deans anyhow has only been at the helm for around half of that period (since 2008).

When you consider that NZ have also been the dominant side in world rugby for most of that time, should we really have been expecting anything different in the Bledisloe encounters this year?

Perhaps we might have thought the two would be closer in the score line, but the All Blacks are World Champions for a reason. The weight of past World Cup agonies seem to have been lifted from their shoulders too and clearly they are going to be the team to beat this year.

 They are attempting an even more expansive style of play under Steve Hansen and there are going to be occasions where it really comes off for them this year. The way they changed the point of attack against the Wallabies with their big men offloading was quite mesmeric at times.

No other side is playing that brand of footy and in my opinion, Australia nor any other side stood a chance.

Former All Black captain, Sean Fitzpatrick, made a good point in the aftermath of Saturday's game at Eden Park too, citing that whatever the coaching and tactics dished out by the respective coaches, 'Australia simply don't have the cattle' to compete with New Zealand.

I think it's pretty difficult to dispute that argument.

Looking down the team sheets, there is a clear difference in class between the Aussies and the Kiwis.

 Will Genia, David Pocock and Digby Ione are probably the only three Wallabies who are truly 'World Class', and by that I mean, any team in the world would happily have them in their side.

Compare that with New Zealand and I would argue that Woodock, Mealamu, Franks, McCaw, Reid, Carter, SBW, Jane and Dagg could all feasibly fit into that category. Aaron Cruden too (arguably NZ's best player in the 2012 Super 15) isn't even getting a start.That says a lot about their relative strength in depth.

Perhaps a more appropriate time for an appraisal of Deans' performance therefore would be when the Wallabies face South Africa and Argentina later on in the competition. Expecting Deans to work wonders against the World Champions seems a little unfair.

SA and Argentina are more winnable contests. That is where one can really judge Deans and his influence.

Don't forget that Deans did already lead the Wallabies to a 3-0 series victory over Wales (the Six Nations champions) in June too. That shouldn't be downplayed, no matter how narrow the victories were.

The embarassing loss to Scotland  prior to the series can be put down to extentuating circumstances; freakish weather in Newcastle and a lack of front line players available due to poor organising from the ARU. Deans' fault alone?  Not in my opinion.

If you don't agree and you think it's time for Deans to go, that is fair enough, but just think hard about the replacements Australia has available.

Michael Foley? No. Ewen McKenzie? Well there might be growing support for Queensland Reds' incumbent coach, but he doesn't seem ready for the challenge to me....

One good season with the Reds shouldn't justify an international Head Coaching position. He had some difficulties this year with the Reds and came a little unstuck without the magic of Quade Cooper at his disposal. Topping the Australian conference almost occurred by default. His tactics were found out against stronger opposition.

In comparision, Dean's CV is almost flawless. He's been successful in the Ranfurly Shield, the NPC and his Crusaders side set the benchmark in Super Rugby for a number of years under his stewardship.

He, crucially, enjoyed repeated success year on year. Those successes surely should earn him the right to prove the doubters wrong. It almost secured him the All Blacks job after all!

If there are problems with Australian rugby, it's down to more than just Deans. Just take a look at the plight of the Aussie Super 15 sides this year as an example.


  1. Although I agree that Dingo is getting a hard rap, I think McKenzie might have a little more going for him than just Quade Cooper. A few things to keep in mind: He didn't have Cooper for most of the season; he lost captain (and Wallabies captain) James Horwill, a huge totem for any team; during a crucial point of the season he lost Digby Ione for three weeks due to a tip tackle; Saia Faingaa was injured for the first nine games and only played three of those; and just before Ione came back, centre and Wallaby Ben Tapuai busted his collarbone and was out for 10 weeks. In a lot of ways, it was a race for who had the most hobbled team, the Reds or the Blues.

    But when McKenzie had a healthier team, what made the Reds click was the structures he imposed, and those structures provided Cooper and Genia a framework to function within. It was clear about half-way through the World Cup that without those structures -- when the Wallabies "played what was in front of them" -- Cooper especially was rather aimless, and couldn't find a way to unleash what he can do.

    That's been one of the bigger complaints about the Wallabies over the past 7 or 8 tests; they don't seem to have a plan, and playing what's in front of them leaves them too unsettled to make much happen, no matter how good the players are. If McKenzie takes over, he'll at least have a number of backs who are already familiar with his systems, and he'll most likely impose a more structured style of play, like he does with the Reds. I wouldn't even be surprised if the forwards front up a bit more under McKenzie; Higginbotham looks like a shadow of what he was in Super Rugby at the Reds, and Horwill will be healthy again.

    So he might not have the experience, but he may have the keys to unlock some of the Wallabies attacking power.

    1. Thanks for the lengthy reply mxyzptlk.

      I take your points re McKenzie and the injuries he faced with the Reds. Obviously that would have been difficult to deal with.

      My point was though that I didn't think he had the experience yet to deal with the problems thrown up at test level. Even Robbie admittedly is finding it difficult. That doesn't mean he shouldn'y be given the chance eventually.

      Could McKenzie cope by himself at the moment? I'm not so sure. I think he would find it just as difficult as Deans.

      As for the lack of structure, I actually think that the game plan imposed by Deans is pretty simple and can be hugley effective. The problem is that key decision makers in the team are making hapless decisions just at the wrong times.

      Take for example a moment in the second half when the Wallabies had the All Blacks stretched, the ball comes out to Barnes and what does he do? He cross kicks it back in the direction it came...to no one. All momentum lost.

      The problems seem to be inherent to the Australian players rather than the coach in my opinion.

    2. Yep, no disagreement about the players. I've been watching the ITM cup lately, and you can see where the NZ forwards learn how to play as fast their 9 and 10. Aaron Smith has even stepped up that pace a bit. Any team -- let alone the Wallabies -- are going to have to pick up that pace if they want to hang with the best in the world. If they're going to play what's in front of them, but don't have players in place to capitalize on gaps and stretched defenses, they tend to end up kicking aimlessly around the park.

      And I don't doubt McKenzie would have to grow into the job, with some requisite growing pains. The thinking in some Aussie press is that McKenzie has already had success with some of those same Wallaby players at Queensland and those players know McKenzie better. Since that Reds success can't be replicated by Deans, maybe they'll be able to perform under a less-qualified coach that they already know.

      That actually kind of comes back to Steve Hansen's double-edged comment that Deans was a great coach at Crusaders "where he had a really good team" -- i.e. Deans' style of play works for a team that's willing to put in the effort, and the Wallabies aren't putting in that effort at the moment. Maybe the Wallabies need to play a more structured game that requires a little less thinking in order to get back on the rails.

      Either way, the intensity and focus is up to the players.

    3. Well I guess we won't know unless a change is made.

      Regarding adding structure, Jake White is on the Aussie scene at the moment so if Deans were to go with McKenzie taking over, I don't think it would be a bad idead propping White up next to him for a bit of test nous.

  2. Jake White's living in Australia now?

    1. Good point. I think White could help improve the forward pack for sure.

      Would be nice reciprocity after Eddie Jones helped White and SA in their bid to win RWC 2007 too!

  3. Whether Deans is good enough or not, he has had a good amount of time at the helm and after their end of the year tour(unless they have a blinder) needs to step down, take on the tahs coaching role and get back winning. Definitely not all on Deans as not one Aussie player I saw made any real impact on that game as to they were a standout player in a losing team. I longed for Samo to run full steam at the ABs, or Cooper to produce some magical offload/dummy pass/side step sometihng, anything, even some taunting or a bloody eye gouge would have given some inkling that the Ozzie team wanted to win at all costs....Some good moments from players but no one stood up ready to lay it all out for the Green and Gold jersey...And Im an AB fan

    1. Fair point. He needs to be given the chance to have a go at the other teams though first as you said.

      I thought there was a lot of committment on defence, but their attack was rather insipid.

  4. Saia Faingaa was injured for the first nine games and only played three of those; and just before Ione came back, centre and Wallaby Ben Tapuai busted his collarbone and was out for 10 weeks