Rugby: The final crusade

By Wynne Gray

If the Crusaders triumph tonight, coach Robbie Deans says that Super 14 sign off will elevate them above the unbeaten class of 2002.

"They are the two stand-out sides, though 2005 was very good too, but if I had to put my house on one of them, I would probably put it on this team, believe it or not," he said.

Faced with a suggestion that was a public relations statement ahead of tonight's Christchurch decider against the Waratahs, Deans retaliated.

"This side has more grunt up front in the whole eight, they are a pretty good pack. It would be a great game between the two and the result might depend, hopefully, on which team I'm coaching."

Deans then broke into that slightly evil laugh which punctuates a great deal of his conversation, the sort of mischief a man confident about his work can exude.

It is the end of Deans' nine-year Crusade tonight before he jets out to coach the Wallabies after some bloodletting which rivalled Vic Cavanagh's rejection as 1949 All Blacks coach and some of the Wyllie/Hart/Mains debates of recent times.

This final game has a juicy undercurrent because many of the Waratahs will figure when Deans reveals his first Wallaby squad on Monday. Dividing his time, apportioning the right efforts to his Crusaders and Wallaby portfolios has been tough but nothing new to Deans.

He was involved with three campaigns at the start of this decade with Canterbury, the Crusaders and New Zealand A before he realised he could not persevere with that workload.

"I took a break from the NPC and did some research which was the best thing to happen to me. I started looking at other ways of running the group and started to challenge my own thinking and realised there was a whole lot out there that I was missing," he said.

It was a defining time in Deans' coaching career, one of several he recalls. Those advances usually came after an average season as he wondered how he was going to revitalise the Crusaders. The most notable was the 2001 season when the side dipped to 10th after three straight title wins.

"Through those times we had to consider what we had all contributed to that demise," he said.

Deans has changed a great deal in his coaching style. He has never been a great tub-thumper or shouter but when he started with Canterbury in the'90s he was like most coaches who applied the law of diminishing returns.

"There is no doubt I was more of a teller - I am a better listener now. I was a bit inflexible - if players couldn't do something I used to make them go harder. That was how it was done. I have changed a great deal. I thought it was all about knowledge and what the coach wanted and then driving that through but that method is a short-term fix.

"I treated the team and people generically, for example they would all get flogged at training for the benefit of a few. Now the work is far more customised, much more individual."

An insight has been delivered this season with television footage of Deans in his halftime duties, working the room and listening intently to his players; none of the imagined boiling oil and roasting treatment.

"Look, you go in at the break, points down and you are struggling or it is not going too well.

"There is no point in getting them agitated. You are frustrated and the team is probably frustrated and you go in and rant and rave and tell them what they already know.

"All you're doing is making yourself feel better and that is only temporary. You have got to help them find solutions. If you don't have one you have to talk to them because they may have one, collectively you've got to find one."

Deans said he dealt with his side in mini-groups because there were so many parts to the game. He listened to them because they were feeling the tempo of the match, they had ideas on how a match was going, where it was heading.

"While we might have a perception of what should happen, if they have an idea and we have one then it is better to run with theirs because they believe in it."

Like all coaches, the 48-year-old Deans spends hours on analysis, balancing that work about 80-20 in favour of what he wants the Crusaders to achieve. He believes anyone can coach but the next step is critical, working out how much you are achieving.

"My personal motivation, in the back of my mind, I keep asking myself, am I making a difference here? Am I adding any value? If not then you need to consider what you do as it pertains to the people you work with."

Once he selected his Crusaders squad, Deans' priority was to channel their talents to create the most positive experiences. "It is about their needs and their challenges. It is a living document, there is not one blueprint," he said.

Players could control their destiny far more than the coaching staff. But Deans agreed that his coaching longevity and experience allowed him to cope with most situations rugby could throw at him.

"The game is the thing - you have to respect it and the people involved in it. We are only temporary custodians and we have a responsibility to the game."

He sees his Crusaders' successor as a new-generation coach like his assistant Mark Hammett or Todd Blackadder who are already in the system, while Daryl Gibson would be a handy addition as backline mentor. "They know where they have been and where they are going." Enough said, that sounds a done deal if the Crusaders board listens to his wisdom.

Deans is moving on, hired and committed to coach the Wallabies through to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Beyond that? Don't ask him, anything is possible. So, briefly, we go back to the 2003 World Cup where he was All Black assistant to John Mitchell before both were let go.

This is the one subject on which Deans measures his answers more, when the information flow tightens as you inquire about what he learned most from that time.

"Laurie Mains told me before the World Cup we had to make sure all our ducks were in a row and not all of those ducks were on the field - enough said."

Point out that is a short answer and Deans hits back, "It is a long one too".

"We had a great time, a lot of fun, we made some shifts but ultimately others pulling in other directions won."

Rejected once more for the All Blacks, Deans boards a flight on Monday to start his Wallaby career. That will ramp up the annual Bledisloe Cup fever with that first contest in two months in Sydney. The 2011 World Cup could be spicy.

"I hope it is a fantastic success and will promote New Zealand to the world," he said. "I feel my part in that is to make sure it is not a one-way contest and that the event is of interest as well."

Deans has left much of the Wallaby work to forwards coach Michael Foley and outgoing high-performance director Pat Howard. They were overseeing the work. He was not certain on his captain as four players who had led the Wallabies were still available. "To be frank, I put it to both interview panels [All Blacks and Wallabies] that I didn't want to pick the first team. I was happy for the incumbents to pick the first All Black side [he got that wish] because they were contracted through to March anyway.

"No matter who I would have picked for the All Blacks it would have been perceived there was too much red and black bias. In Australia, I was happy for others to do most of it because I have not been there much."

Deans thinks at least 10 of his Crusaders deserve to be picked in tomorrow's AB side while he says goodbye to Christchurch.

He loves the southern city, where he can get most places in 10 minutes. He hates stopping at lights or sitting in traffic. So he'll have some adapting to do in Sydney.

Wife Penny and the couple's youngest daughter will shift across the Tasman next year but until then Deans will commute, carrying the sort of (censored) rugby mantra he heard former All Black supremo Grizz Wyllie deliver at a recent civic farewell.

"You are very little until you prove otherwise in every instance."

- NZ Herald

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