Rugby World Cup: Career-defining weekend for Dingo Deans

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans. Photo / Getty Images
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans. Photo / Getty Images

It won't just be Robbie Deans tossing and turning on the eve of his career-defining Test as Wallabies coach on Sunday.

ARU chief John O'Neill is also in for a restless Saturday night before Deans' three-year, 52-Test tenure reaches its moment of truth in Australia's do-or-die Rugby World Cup quarter-final against South Africa in Wellington.

As 2007 World Cup-winning mentor Jake White told AAP, nothing less than a quarter-final triumph could be considered a pass mark for Australia's first-ever foreign Wallabies coach.

"The bottom line is, I just think for Australian rugby, which has consistently been in the top three or four in the world over the last 10 years, it wouldn't be a great sign for them to be knocked out in the quarters in two World Cups in succession," White said.

"Any country that has been ranked top three in the world should be making the semis and the finals of tournaments."

O'Neill, the supremo who went out on a limb to sign Deans in 2007 ahead of home-based contenders Ewen McKenzie, David Nucifora and Alan Jones, conceded as much himself on Friday.

"Our objective as one of the world's major unions is to to be a world power on a consistent basis," he said.

"Every four years the Rugby World Cup come around. We've won it twice - '91 and '99 - and it's an inescapable fact that the health and well-being of the game back in Australia does hinge, not solely but quite largely, on the success of the Wallabies.

"We've been building for this - World Cups come and go - and our aim is to be consistent and in the top two or three in the world year in, year out.

And when people talk about world rankings, this event tends to be fairly definitive in terms of rankings.

"So we're very aspirational, very confident, (but) we don't underestimate the nature of the challenge.

"You have to show up over the next three weeks - sudden-death, quarter-finals, semi-finals, that's a very tough theatre and it's as much about your playing strength as it is about your mental strength."

When O'Neill controversially extended Deans' contract in August for two more years, with a clear eye on the 2013 British and Irish Lions' tour, he spruiked about how the New Zealander had advanced the Wallabies from fifth to second in the world rankings.

In reality, the Wallabies were already second before John Connolly's outfit suffered a distastrous quarter-final exit from the last World Cup in France.

What cannot be denied, though, is Deans' success in rebuilding and revitalising the Wallabies with some bold and daring selections.

While others may not have had the nerve, Deans has ended the Test careers of several ageing Wallabies greats including former captains Phil Waugh and Stirling Mortlock and phased out a raft of others, most notably George Smith, Al Baxter and contentious World Cup omission Matt Giteau.

His sweeping generational change, which has seen 31 newcomers introduced to the Test arena, has at times been painful.

The ecstasy of drought-breaking victories in South Africa and Tri Nations triumphs over the Springboks and All Blacks have been tarnished by exasperating losses to Scotland and Samoa.

But Deans has continued to back his new-age squad's youthful exuberance through the many ups and downs, sticking solid with mercurial playmaker Quade Cooper as his main man ahead of the 92-Test star Giteau.

As well as Cooper, the encouraging emergence, possibly before their time, of game-breakers Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor, Will Genia and David Pocock has the Wallabies well positioned moving forward.

Genia and Pocock are regarded among the best in the world in their crucial positions while the kindred spirits of 'three amigos' Cooper, Beale and O'Connor make Australia the most potent attacking force in the game.

If an early book was taken for the 2015 World Cup in England, Australia would rival the perennial powers the All Blacks as favourites.

But potential must meet performance this weekend and the future will count for nought if the Wallabies repeat their inglorious 2007 campaign with another shattering last-eight departure from the global showpiece.

Deans this week admitted he was intrigued to find out what his men are truly made of and is desperate for his talented troops to reward him in Sunday's 80-minute examination at the Cake Tin.

But even victory over an ageing Springboks line-up will not guarantee the 52-year-old a pass mark from the hard-nosed rugby fraternity and fickle Australian sporting public.

For many, probably most, nothing short of a World Cup final appearance will be sufficient.

That would almost certainly involve conquering the top-ranked All Blacks in a semi-final at their Eden Park fortress.

The Wallabies, though, have only themselves to blame for sabotaging their dream draw with a shock pool loss to Ireland.

But O'Neill, despite his edginess, is keeping the faith.

"We're all in this together," O'Neill said.

"This is my fourth World Cup and if you're not anxious, you shouldn't be in the business.

"These tournaments are a huge test of your depth and of your endurance.

"But we have had a very good preparation. Clearly we want to progress and I believe we will.

"But you don't taking anything for granted. Any game against the Springboks is a massive Test, but we're confident that we have the players and the ability to win.

"But (there's been) a few sleepless nights."

- AAP

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