Dwyer the guru of the game

RUGBY UNION WORLD CUP: Australia's success has been meticulously planned by an exceptional man. He spoke to Steve Bale
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Bob Dwyer is standing on the threshold of all-time greatness. But, being a coach, he cannot cross unless other people - the Australian team who begin their defence of the Webb Ellis trophy against South Africa in Cape Town on Thursday - push him over.

Such is the lot of the coach as enabler rather than actual achiever, even if you are the great Dwyer with one World Cup to your - or rather your players' - name and another that may soon be added. They also serve who, like him, only stand and wait.

It is already, whatever happens at Newlands or elsewhere, a fantastic record. Dwyer's Wallabies won the 1991 World Cup and in the process won hearts and minds, setting an example both on the field and off it. In a sense we were all winners because the service they did was not just to Australia or Australian rugby but to the game itself.

And that is not only a credit to Dwyer and his players but also a responsibility as they prepare, as favourites, for the third World Cup. "If people around the world believe my team are popular, or even to an extent beloved, then I'm extremely moved by that," he said. They do.

"We've always aspired to play what I would consider to be the right kind of rugby, not because the players wear rose-coloured glasses but because I've always thought they could gain immense satisfaction from doing something that, generally speaking, is regarded as being better.

"But, more than that, there is even fulfilment to be gained from playing this kind of rugby whether anyone is watching or not. It's an ethereal thing and a bit hard to articulate, but by far the most important thing is that the players themselves gain satisfaction from what they do. If people generally do as well, that is an extra."

Dwyer has had many years to refine these sentiments because he has followed his abortive first period as coach of Australia, from 1982-84, with another stretching back to 1988. After all this time he is undecided about whether to continue after this World Cup, but he will continue to be motivated by the eternal quest for perfection which even his wonderful Wallabies have never quite completed.

"The problem is I haven't quite seen realised exactly what I would wish Australian teams to accomplish," he said. "I've seen some instances of it - quite often, actually - but the difficulty is I'm always looking for something further and never satisfied. It's a monkey on my back, no matter how satisfied I feel or how proud I am of the team."

Dwyer is a 54-year-old Sydney businessman who has done exceedingly well in marketing and PR, quite properly exploiting his renown as the Wallaby coach while for a long time arguing that whatever remuneration should come the way of amateur international rugby players should also benefit coaches.

He has a CV to support his contention, mainly through the winning of the 1991 World Cup but also through the consistent excellence of the sides he has sent out during most of his period as coach. So when the big bang occurs and rugby union turns from quasi-amateur to quasi-professional, Dwyer would gladly cash in too.

"I would say the coach is the equivalent of one of the players and therefore should share in whatever is happening. To what degree is another question, but I remember the story of a very high-profile American basketball coach who refused to coach in the professional ranks because he said he would never coach a team where the coach did not earn as much as the top player.

"His theory was that if a player was getting $1.5m and he was getting $500,000, the player might decide he was more important than the coach. The relative worth is a very difficult question to answer because there is no way one can measure it, but there's no doubt the coach is at least another player and if your other player is better than their other player, then you have an advantage. You would have to say your coach could have as much influence as one of the major players."

The successes of his teams mean Dwyer is quite right to eschew false modesty, but there is much more to it than that. First of all, this is a man from a rugby league background whose father was a 13-a-side coach. Yet even in the febrile atmosphere of Australian sport, where rugby league has a pre-eminence in the consciousness of New South Welshmen and Queenslanders, Dwyer Jnr has come to be one of the most persuasive advocates of the more cerebral and profound delights of rugby union.

More than that, he has become a figure of power and influence despite (or maybe because of?) a playing career of unimpeachable loyalty but, equally, considerable modesty. Dwyer was a flanker who made nearly 400 appearances for the leading Sydney club, Randwick, but less than 50 of those were in the first grade.

Dwyer then swam the first coaching tide that swept through Australian rugby union in the 1970s and was so good at it that, after becoming the Randwick first-grade coach in 1977, he completed a giddy ascent to become coach of Australia in 1982, aged only 41. Through little fault of his own, failure on the field exacerbated by endemic division between NSW and Queensland off it and an abhorrent whispering campaign against him, his tenure lasted only two years.

Alan Jones proceeded to coach the Wallabies on their Grand Slam tour of the British Isles in 1984 and to a historic series win in New Zealand in 1986 but by the inaugural World Cup of 1987 Jones had lost his empathy with the players and, when the annual election for coach took place the following February, Dwyer was re-elected on the chairman's casting vote after the ballot was tied at 6-6.

Such is the politics of Australian rugby. Jones has never forgiven Dwyer and has consistently used his radio show in Sydney to denigrate his successor, even though the subsequent reality has been all the evidence in his favour Dwyer could have needed.

When the World Cup at last kicks off on Thursday, no team will have been better prepared than the Wallabies and no coach will have conducted a more profound analysis than Dwyer - which does not mean poring over videos day and night but simply sitting down and thinking hard. Nobody does it harder.

Here is the proof: "I haven't striven to be at my very best all the time, because I think there's a cyclical nature of coaches' performance as much as of players'. I don't mean I haven't tried, but just as I ask players to do different things in the year leading up to the World Cup, so I ask myself to do different things so that I can peak at the same time as the players peak. We all know there is a danger of player burn-out but, believe me, that applies equally to coaches."

So how has he done it? What kind of a coach is he, a tub-thumper or a rationalist or both? "I'm not really one to lift the emotions before a match," Dwyer said. "I'm aggressive: if I see a dereliction of duty I get very, very annoyed and sometimes the players object to that. But if I have a role, I have a right to expect the players to accept that role, otherwise there's no point in my being there.

"The two things about my coaching style are I am analytical and I am determined. I believe my attention to detail is extreme in terms of technique and running lines and passing lines and positional play, but at the same time I've been incredibly fortunate and privileged to have had this fantastic opportunity to work with so many wonderful players.

"One of the great secrets of coaching success is not really a secret at all: it's to have a great team and, had the job gone to someone else - not anyone else, mind you - he could have done the same job. But I was Johnny-on-the-spot and I wouldn't deny that I've worked very diligently and no doubt successfully. It's been a real job, even though the pay isn't always that good."

So now comes the reckoning. If Dwyer really does wish to continue after the World Cup - and the more defections to Rupert Murdoch's Super League, the likelier that eventuality - he knows that he will be judged on his team's current record, i.e. here in South Africa, and not on past history however distinguished.

"In an ideal world we could certainly have done with a lower-profile game to start with than South Africa and if I ask the players they would say we can beat them, not we will beat them," he said. "The problem is that `pretty good' will not be nearly enough in this World Cup and I have to say we displayed better form in 1991 going into the tournament then than we have in '95."

Never mind, whatever goes wrong the Australians have the shrewdest analyst in international rugby to seek their solution for them. But the coach's role is essentially passive and Dwyer's elevated reputation will not stand or fall on anything he does. From Thursday on, it will be all down to his players.