Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Wolves gathering at Dingo's door

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

Australian rugby is not in a great place. Robbie Deans is not in a great place. Perhaps the two need a break from each other - a voluntary or forced separation.

Failure in the Rugby Championship should spell the end of Deans' Wallaby venture. There would be little gained from persevering with something that so obviously isn't working. The Wallabies have won only 60 per cent of their tests under Deans - which is not so much a 'could do better' record, more of a 'someone else could do better' record.

After four-and-a-half years in charge, what reason is there to believe Deans will make a sudden breakthrough? There's no way of ever really knowing these things but the gut feel within the Australian Rugby Union should be leaning them towards thinking that Ewen McKenzie is a better bet.

If nothing else, McKenzie is Australian and knows how to coach Australian players. The notion that the Kiwi way can be transplanted all over the world is not quite true.

David Pocock is not Richie McCaw; Quade Cooper is not Dan Carter and there is a feeling that while Deans has worked that out, he hasn't been able to adjust his coaching to reflect the cultural, tactical and psychological differences.

What felt like a coup d'etat back in late 2007 now feels like a worthy gamble that hasn't paid off. Those ever canny Australians had observed the All Black coaching appointment process with their arms outstretched, ready to envelop Deans and offer him the international job his own country wouldn't. ARU chief executive John O'Neill talked immediately of how the appointment of Deans would lead a Wallaby renaissance. The goal of winning 75 per cent of their tests was set and Deans was tasked with restoring the credibility of Australian rugby.

When that goal started to slip in November 2009 on a dank and gloomy evening in Edinburgh, there was a hasty re-evaluation. The Wallabies had won only 50 per cent of their games under Deans - and the figure was dropping after seven consecutive losses to New Zealand, a wooden spoon in the Tri Nations, a draw with Ireland and defeat against Scotland.

The World Cup would be the real target; if the Wallabies could win that, then everything would be forgiven; everything would be all right again.

It wouldn't matter that the All Blacks would beat Deans' Wallabies 11 out of 14 times, as long as the World Cup ended up across the Tasman. All those defeats could be tolerated if the Wallabies won the World Cup semifinal; the All Blacks could have those other 11 wins; what would it matter if Australia had celebrated at Eden Park on October 16?

But the Wallabies barely fronted on their planned night of salvation. The cunning tactical adjustments everyone in New Zealand feared never materialised; there was no innovation or clever deviation from what had gone before.

The Wallabies lamely surrendered, offering nothing - not even rabid passion.

That probably should have been the time for Deans to move aside - to realise that for whatever reason, he wasn't/isn't the man to take Australia to the heights it wants to scale. But coaches rarely sense their own fallibilities; they are natural optimists who see only the potential for improvement. The ARU have been happy to go along with things as well, believing that shuffling Deans' wider management team would fix all.

A post-World Cup review led to a clean-out and new assistants arriving. Think deckchairs and the Titanic; the Wallabies opened their 2012 season with another defeat to Scotland, provoking former Wallaby coach John Connolly to say: "The last four years has been the worst in the professional era for Australia. If they lose this series to Wales, there should be a review of the game. There's a whole myriad of issues that we have to look at."

The Wallabies won the series by the skin of their teeth and only then it was because of Wales' chronic lack of self-belief when it really mattered.

The problems Connolly alluded to were all there: a weak scrum, a lack of clout at the breakdown, not enough punchy ball carriers, no obvious tactical kicking game and a general lack of physical presence.

These areas were problems when Deans arrived and they are problems that will no doubt surface in the Rugby Championship and leave the Wallabies grateful for the presence of Argentina.

Deans has delivered plenty for the Wallabies, just not enough. He's promoted and carefully nurtured the likes of Quade Cooper, James O'Connor, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale. He's got them fitter and better conditioned; taught them about self-expression and encouraged them to play expansive rugby.

But he hasn't taught them how to scrummage or man up in the crunchy bits. He hasn't found any bruising forwards for the future or given the Wallabies a hard culture where only relentless excellence is tolerated. Imagine the All Blacks losing to Scotland in consecutive games; or losing to Samoa; or drawing with Ireland or enduring 10 straight defeats to the Wallabies.

There's a chance McKenzie could do worse but a bigger one that says he'll do better and the ARU will have no choice but to make changes if the Wallabies finish the Rugby Championship a distant third - or worse still, an embarrassing fourth.

- Herald on Sunday

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