In the annals of rugby union history, there has rarely been anything like it before.
Boxing had Ali v Frazier; Nicklaus v Palmer lit up America’s golf courses of the 1960s and Nadal v Federer at Wimbledon a week or two back was a classic match-up.
So now comes Henry v Deans, rugby’s answer to the sporting personality contest. It might not quite be a ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ like Ali’s famed encounter with Frazier but in the context of this sport, it is a novel concept.
There is actually, also a rugby Test match going on here in Sydney on Saturday night. Not that you would know it, given the blitz of words and hysteria surrounding the first meeting of rival Kiwi coaches Robbie Deans and Graham Henry in international rugby.
The personality clash between the two has dominated the build-up to the Australia v New Zealand Bledisloe Cup match at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
To understand why there has been such a fuss about the first clash between the two men since Deans, coach of the Super 14 Champions The Crusaders, defected to Australia to take charge of the Wallabies, you have to understand the background. Henry was excoriated after the All Blacks blew their World Cup hopes in the quarter-final against France last October. He seemed doomed to be sacked with Deans the obvious replacement.
But at the 11th hour, Henry re-applied for his job and to the astonishment of his nation (and himself), was re-appointed. Deans, who was about to win his fifth Super Rugby title with The Crusaders, was overlooked for the job and immediately snatched by the shrewd Australians.
So they come together like warring brothers from the same family, as in times like the Middle Ages. Appropriately, they meet for the first time on a battlefield.
Their direct confrontation has been like manna from heaven for the media on both sides of the Tasman. A feeding frenzy has been in place among all forms of the media, with any words from or about the two men greedily seized upon.
But what do the two men themselves say? Henry says he re-applied for his job, despite the shattering World Cup failure, because he considered that walking away voluntarily would have let down the young players in his charge. So he re-applied and was interviewed.
“I did not feel the interview had gone well and I had no expectations whatsoever after it” he told me. “I called my wife and told her we would have a quiet night at home. There would be nothing to celebrate.”
Yet 24 hours later, he had got the job. “I thought Robbie was still going to get the job. I got a shock when they appointed me. They could have appointed Robbie - he’s a very fine coach – and that would have been OK with me.”
And Henry now looks forward to the first of his sparring encounters with his old nemesis? “Well, I’m sure the public will be interested in that” he says, enigmatically.
To lift the Super 14 trophy with The Crusaders and then board the plane for Sydney and his new job as Wallaby coach within 48 hours represented the hurdling of some emotional barrier, as far as Deans was concerned.
“The fact that I have ended up coaching against the nation I played for, is novel. I sought the counsel of John Wright (the New Zealand cricketer who coached India against his native country) and asked him for his insight into what it was like competing against your brother in the backyard. And by the way, that’s something I’ve done a lot of with only a year between Bruce and myself.
“Right from the outset, I’ve been interested to know what my emotions would be but I had an insight the night after my appointment when there was a news item that showed some Bledisloe Cup footage. I felt a rush of excitement and that hasn’t changed. In fact, it has probably escalated since then. I can’t wait, I’m really looking forward to it.”
But wasn’t his defection a form of sporting treason ? “I understand that some people may call it treason and that is reflective of the fact that this is a very emotional area. But treason is when you’re putting your nation at threat. This isn’t war, it’s a game. Lives are not at risk.”
Deans, speaking with the detachment of a professional, says it feels quite natural to coach the Wallabies. “When I walk down the tunnel and some of the blokes I spent the first six months of this year with are on the other side; well, that will feel novel. But it won’t be difficult for me, it will be pure excitement.
“I’ve had to be utterly ruthless and just get on with it. But the past doesn’t count. All I know is that this will be enriching for me. It won’t be straightforward but it’s another life experience and it will be fantastic.”
Watching the two square up should be highly instructive, too. Upwards of 70,000 people will be at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium to see it.
Coached Auckland (1992-1997) Won four NPC titles
Coached The Blues (1996-1998) Won two Super 12 titles
Coached Wales (1998-2002) Test record: Won 22, Drawn 1, Lost 13
Coached British & Irish Lions to Australia 2001: Lost Test series 2-1
Technical advisor to The Blues 2003
Coached All Blacks (2004-2008) Test record: Won 49, Lost 7.
IRB Coach of the Year 2005 & 2006.
Coached All Blacks to 3-0 Test win over 2005 British & Irish Lions
Won Tri-Nations title 2005, 2006, 2007.
Played for Canterbury (NZ), New Zealand and Grenoble, France.
A former All Black: won 5 caps.
Coached Canterbury (1997-2000) Won one NPC title
Coached Crusaders (2000-2008) Won five Super Rugby titles
Assistant coach to the All Blacks 2001-2003
Coached Australian Wallabies (2008-) Won 4, Lost 0.