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They had a good chuckle, did the men of Glenmark Rugby Club's Division III team over something their coach said. "15, R Deans," he'd called as he ran through the starting team to play Ohoka a couple of weekends ago.

"Everyone laughed," says Nick Hamilton, 33, club secretary, older brother of Crusaders and All Black wing Scott Hamilton, and proud member of the division III team. "Then we saw him, and he was changing into his boots."

The Crusaders video analyst plays for Ohoka, and Robbie Deans, ex All Black and clearly Super Rugby's most successful coach, at 48, thought it a good idea to make a surprise guest appearance for his old club and give the analyst "a hurry-up".

"He was brilliant too," says Hamilton, "he's still got it."

Never shy when a job needs doing, Deans assumed the goal-kicking duties. There was no discussion, Deans grabbed the tee and got on with it.

Glenmark won. Of course. The tiny club's blue and gold jersey holds the same mana at grass roots as red and black does at provincial level and as black does throughout the rugby world.

Drive north through Amberley, past where vines butt up against pastoral land and you will find the tidy clubrooms beside the main highway. Wine is the modern story of this part of North Canterbury. It's proud history is farming and rugby. It's that story the club's walls tell.

In pride of place is an honours board bearing the names of Glenmark's nine All Blacks, nearly double the number of names on the memorial in front of the club that commemorates the five men from the region killed during World War II.

The photograph of the 1970 Under 11 side is a stand-out. The team included four future All Blacks: Richard Loe, Andy Earl and brothers Bruce and Robbie Deans. Pity the poor buggers who faced them. That year the team played 14, won 14, scored 220 points and conceded 3 - those scored by Earl on loan to the opposition.

Glenmark's players are of this land. The Deans worked Kilmarnock station, a sheep farm of muscular hills and pleasant willow-lined river valley. Back then it was the last stop on the bus route. Even today it is beyond the beaten track, down a metal road, Motunau beach to the south, the mouth of the Hurunui River to the north.

It's where Bruce (14 months younger) and Robbie started their rugby, "on the back lawn". Their parents, Tony and Joy, put up goalposts on the farm. "They were the tallest in New Zealand mate," says Deans. "They blew down the day after I gave up [playing]."

The local grader driver happened to coach the Glenmark under-11 side and, says Deans, "must have liked Mum's scones because she persuaded him to give us a run".

"Bruce and I did a scissors move and I think it was me that scored. They were amazed by the move but, of course, being the two of us, that's all we did back on the farm."

It's hard to believe this former rubbishman, woolstore worker and barman became such an accomplished manager of rugby men. Though curtailed by knee injury, he had a successful playing career with Canterbury and the All Blacks (14 games, five tests) before carving a coaching career second to none in Super rugby.

Coached by Deans, the Crusaders have won the title four times (two more than the next best, All Black coaches Graham Henry and Wayne Smith). This season is the seventh time in eight years Deans' team has made the final.

Yet the Rugby Union let him go, retaining Graham Henry as All Black coach. When the Australians snapped him up to become the first foreigner to guide their national team, the Wallabies, no one, least of all Vic Simpson and Warwick Taylor, were surprised. They were backline collaborators in the close-knit team of Canterbury's Ranfurly Shield era of 1982-1985.

"Early on I thought he was going to be an icon," says Taylor, a teacher at Burnside High. "Canterbury was and is everything to him."

As a player, he was a thinker who was very organised. He was listened to, even though not the loudest voice in a group. It seemed natural that he became captain despite fullback's seldom being given that responsibility.

"What I liked about Christchurch," says Waikato-raised Taylor, "is it's just a big small town. It has a country feel, country values. There's respect and a fair bit of loyalty." Deans, he suggests, epitomises what Cantabrians feel they should be. He's driven to win but is honest and direct.

"He doesn't blow his own trumpet, he just gets out there and does the job."

In makes sense to Simpson that Deans would wonder what the fuss was about when the brothers pulled off their scissors move in the under 11 team. "He's within himself. What you meet is what you get."

Simpson met Deans in 1979 at the trials in Nelson for the New Zealand Colts. "I was from Gisborne, a country bumpkin on my first big trip. This guy came boring through the door, dumped a bag here, up-ended another on the bed, said 'Hi, I'm Robbie', and started smelling his clothes to find the freshest to wear."

"He's a very confident man. He's sure of what he is doing and he was like that as a player."

Though not of the ilk of Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, who blasts players with tirades so furious they call it the 'hair dryer' treatment, Deans' messages are equally direct. Arrive late for practice and you will likely miss the next game.

Scott Hamilton was dropped (he returned for the Crusaders' semi and final) because Deans sensed the winger had become complacent and needed to be woken up.

Simpson: "If a player understands you are trying to get the best from him, respect will come from that. Some coaches will pee in your pocket and they don't actually mean what they say. When Robbie tells you something, he means it. There are no hidden agendas."

Of late, Deans has read widely, telling the Herald: "I once read a quote that we are the same people that we were other than the people we meet and the books we read."

Memorable were books by American basketball coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson and a biography, Mark of the Lion, of war hero Charles Upham (another son of Canterbury), and First, Break All The Rules, a study of how the best managers do things differently.

Not an avid reader of biographies, he recalls enjoying as a younger man books by Andy Haden and Fergie McCormick. It helped that at the time he read the latter, McCormick had picked Deans in the Canterbury Colts team. Deans remembers the revered Canterbury fullback chucking him the ball and saying "there you go son, now get started on the kicking".

He reserves special mention for The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, "the best coaching manual I have ever read". Coincidently, or not, it was cited similarly by World Cup-winning England coach Sir Clive Woodward.

Though his life may seem to be rugby, Deans says he is no rugby nerd. He keeps rugby memorabilia because he realises it may be of interest to someone some day, but it is in boxes or in a stack of rugby "debris" in a corner of the family study. The only visible sign in the house of Deans' calling is a print featuring a pair of rugby boots.

"When you share a study with three kids and your wife there's not a lot of room and I'm a great believer in looking forward."

"People allude to the fact that you are only as good as your last game. I don't agree with that. You are only as good as your next game."

"The reality is in taking this vocation you are clearly not someone seeking shelter because every week you are facing another challenge and you are vulnerable. If you enjoy certainty and comfort then you are in the wrong job."

His family provides respite from the game. Far from being the "fifth selector" as Henry's wife, Raewyn, was dubbed, Deans didn't meet his wife Penny through sport. "I met her before she knew I played the game, in the [university] library which was rare for me because I never spent long in there."

Penny will go to Sydney with Deans, the children will stay in Christchurch. Son Sam, 18, is studying at Canterbury University and daughters Annabel, 16, and Sophie, 12, are at boarding school. They plan to have Sophie join them in Sydney next year.

Deans is an historic name in Christchurch. Deans Ave fringes Hagley Park. Turn into Kilmarnock St (the name of the farm Robbie Deans' grandfather established) and head towards Deans Cottage (the oldest building on the Canterbury Plains) and the grand Riccarton House, the homes his forebears built of pit-sawn timber.

Robbie, Bruce, sisters Jo, Nicky and Sarah are fifth generation descendants of the first Europeans to settle in Canterbury, brothers John and William Deans who arrived in the early 1840s from Scotland in pursuit of their dream to be farmers.

They were pioneers who carved farms out of the bush in Riccarton and Darfield. Both died young, William in a shipwreck off Cape Terawhiti, Cook Strait, on his way to buy stock; John (Robbie's great, great grandfather) of tuberculosis 18 months after returning to New Zealand with his bride, Jane McIllraith, who raised their only child, John II, (who in turn had 12 children including Maxwell, grandfather of Robert "Robbie" Maxwell Deans).

Deans told the Herald he's proud of his deep Canterbury roots, more so as he has aged. "They were the ones who did the hard yards."

And grateful too to his parents Tony and Joy of whom he says, "they made me what I am".

Some of the Deans grit comes from his mother, a former national figure skating champion: "Dad put an end to that," Deans says, "she had five children in six years".

The family regularly visit Deans Cottage and Riccarton House and support restoration efforts. Though his father is not well enough to be at the match tonight, most of the family had lunch yesterday at Riccarton House to celebrate a family birthday and to wish Deans well.

He starts work in Australia on Monday as the Wallabies coach.

Critics of a foreigner being appointed were hosed down by those who said Australia needed to get the best available coach no matter where he came from.

Sydney Morning Herald rugby writer Rupert Guiness says Deans comes without political baggage and has carte blanche to draw it up as he sees it. Guiness believes the media and public will allow him a honeymoon season (barring Bledisloe and Tri-Nations disasters) so long as there is evidence of building towards the World Cup in 2011.

Deans will likely provide the media with fewer quotes than they are used to but that may not be a bad thing, says Guiness. "Robbie doesn't say much but we've had a lot of people who did and it's bull****."

Though Deans did his best to claim the move hadn't been on his mind leading to the Super 14 final, he's too astute not to have attended to the essentials.

And - huge paw gripping a mug of tea in his farmhouse near Amberley - another Canterbury rugby icon confirms Deans has been on the job.

Alex "Grizz" Wyllie relates a recent conversation with Deans where he had suggested Deans urgently address two things: find a front row, and get former Wallaby coach (an unsuccessful candidate this time around) and influential talkshow host Alan Jones on side. Deans had already done both. "That's Robbie, he gets the detail, and he gets the job done."

- Additional reporting: Wynne Gray