Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Ominous signs for Deans

Robbie Deans. Photo / Getty Images
Robbie Deans. Photo / Getty Images

For five years Robbie Deans and John O'Neill stayed afloat in the choppy political waters of Australian rugby.

The one-time schoolteacher and former merchant banker spluttered a fair amount but managed to ward off all sorts of questions about their tenure. Until now.

O'Neill has gone, standing down - according to his public relations minders - while his foes maintain he was urged to take his talents elsewhere. To leave when his aim had been to host the British and Irish Lions tour next year, seems unusual.

O'Neill is chairman of the Echo Entertainment Group, which operates casinos in New South Wales and Queensland and that portfolio was taking up an increasing amount of the 61-year-old's time. His detractors maintain that was a convenient line to blur the need for his departure.

Whatever the circumstances and reasons, O'Neill's departure is portrayed as a political disaster for Deans. They have been inseparable since Deans agreed to shift across the Tasman after failing to win the vote as All Blacks coach in late 2007. O'Neill supported Deans' every move, re-hired him for another two years before the World Cup but now that backing is eroded.

As he left the ARU, O'Neill suggested the organisation was in better shape than when he started his second stint five years ago.

"Are we where we really aspired to be? No. The indicators are not that bad, is it perfect? Not where we would like it to be but I think the best is yet to come," he said.

Those who favour Deans' retention, settle on another, if flimsy, viewpoint. They suggest O'Neill's exit was enough blood-letting for now, that the Wallabies are No2 in the world and have clung on well this year despite a massive injury toll.

The last parts are factual and if the All Blacks had been hit by similar injuries, they would have struggled too. The Wallabies do not have the depth of All Black numbers and they have lost frontliners like James Horwill, Will Genia, David Pocock, Wycliff Palu, James O'Connor, Berrick Barnes, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Sekope Kefu and Stephen Moore for significant chunks of this year.

Deans is edging towards Bob Dwyer's record as the most capped Wallaby coach, although his winning percentage is barely past 55 per cent. After last night at Suncorp Stadium, Deans and the Wallabies will head for Europe for tests against France, England, Italy and Wales. Two victories on that trip might just be enough to save his job.

New ARU chairman Michael Hawker, a very savvy midfield back and businessman, is making all the right noises about that scenario unfolding. In the wake of O'Neill's sudden exit, he said his organisation was "very comfortable" with Deans. The push from those in Ewen McKenzie's corner is growing stronger while the Reds coach has distanced himself from any discussion. He does not want to disturb his constituents as the Reds look to recapture the form and public they took with them to the 2010 Super rugby crown.

Quizzed in Brisbane about the threats to his job, Deans pushed the talk away as he does in every test week. It was not the right time to discuss any speculation that last night's international was career-defining.

"It's like that every week mate, it's the nature of the game," Deans said. "There's no point in dwelling on it, it's about these blokes," he said pointing at captain Nathan Sharpe and midfielder Pat McCabe, "and helping them do what they are doing."

Didn't Deans read the newspapers or did he ignore them?

"I'm going to ignore it now because we are going to talk about a game, it is about the Wallabies and the All Blacks. We are two proud nations and you will see that."

One player on show was All Black skipper Richie McCaw, who offered an insight in his recent autobiography, into Deans' coaching style. The pair were together when the Crusaders won five from seven Super titles but McCaw thought his coach inflexible and someone who found it difficult to delegate.

"Robbie doesn't appear to want to be challenged by his assistants and won't allow the kind of full-on debate that Ted [Sir Graham Henry] encouraged with [Wayne] Smith and [Steve] Hansen.

"Robbie's approach is to say - "This is what we are doing" - then convince people that's the way it's got to be. He's very good at it."

Deans had used a number of assistant coaches with the Wallabies.

"Robbie's intransigence and reluctance to delegate might have been a factor, and it's tempting to draw the conclusion that, if Robbie has a strong assistant coach, the assistant won't last long. And if he gets one that lasts, he's not that strong".

Deans has new assistants this year - Nick Scrivener and Tony McGahan.

- Herald on Sunday

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