Peter Bills: Will Robbie Deans regret criticising his own team?

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The Independent Online

He must wish now that he had never said them. Just two little words – but will they come back to haunt Robbie Deans and ultimately condemn to failure his Australian coaching tenure?

They were the words uttered by Deans in September 2009 to describe his Australian rugby team in the light of their 33-6 Tri-Nations defeat by the All Blacks in Wellington, and they remain a painful sore that won’t heal on Australian bodies.

Deans accused his players of “rolling over”, the worst sin an Australian sportsman can commit. He went on: “The most disappointing thing from our perspective was, we essentially capitulated once the game was gone.”

Some Australians have never forgiven him for those words. Perhaps some of them still inhabit the present Wallaby dressing room; we do not know. Did Deans’ stinging criticism open wounds that cannot be healed? Suffice to say, to hear such words from the lips of an Australian would be bad enough. Coming from a New Zealander, they were hated.

A couple of Australian internationals expressed the view privately - who the bloody hell does this bloke think he is?

Perhaps not coincidentally, since that day Australian rugby has lurched unconvincingly from pillar to post. Incredibly, they even lost to Scotland on their northern hemisphere tour last November and could only draw with Ireland. More recently, they scrambled to an unconvincing, narrow win over a weary Ireland in Brisbane and then lost to England, hitherto hopeless, in their own Sydney backyard...

They’ve been a proud, feisty people, these Aussies, from the moment the first convict stumbled ashore in a far off land named Australis. Few countries do national pride like the Australians; it courses like blood through their veins.

To recharge the national fervour in times of need, Australians have gone to great lengths. For instance, the great Aussie cricket captain Steve Waugh once took his Ashes-bound touring party to Gallipoli, to see where so many young Australians once perished. Many talked later of the profound effect the experience had upon them.

It may seem bizarre to say in a professional age but the fate of Robbie Deans as a foreign national coach of the Australian rugby team is probably wrapped up in this delicate topic. And on the evidence of the last 18 months, you would have to say the jury remains out on whether Deans’ tenure as Wallaby coach will go down as successful or, at an estimated Aus$800,000 (£475,000) a year, a costly failure.

As the Wallabies prepare for Saturday’s Tri-Nations clash with New Zealand in Christchurch, one week after losing to them in Melbourne by an alarming margin of seven tries to three, analysing the current state of Australian rugby under Deans is revealing. It quickly becomes clear that the whole Deans venture remains open to considerable doubt in some people’s minds.

Indeed, rugby union in Australia at the present time seems finely balanced between potential triumph or tragedy. The pressure was heaped on Deans earlier this season when Australian Rugby Union CEO John O’Neill declared publicly that the Wallaby coach’s honeymoon period “was over".

O’Neill insisted an Australian win ratio under Deans of 56 per cent wasn’t good enough, and it had to improve. That meant that even if the Wallabies, who lost five of their six Tri-Nations Tests last year, now won three of their six games in this season’s competition, it still wouldn’t be sufficient to satisfy O’Neill.

By his own statistics, the ARU CEO made it clear Australia had to win at least four of their six games this season for Deans to measure up. But they not only have to face a rampant All Blacks side that has made a compelling start to the tournament, but also play two Tests at altitude in South Africa in a few weeks time.

The Wallabies started with a win over the weary, demoralised Springboks at Brisbane. But three further victories for them this season looks tough.

Yet there appears to be an inconsistency in policy from the top in Australian rugby. Recently, O’Neill appeared to backtrack from his tough stance on Deans, saying “Robbie Deans’ job is totally safe until after the World Cup”.

So what happened to the ‘56 per cent win ratio is unacceptable’ line? If there is confusion at the top of Aussie rugby, it’s likely there is just as much lower down, with the players.

And if John O’Neill has a problem, Robbie Deans may have a greater one. Deans’ entire culture was rooted in Canterbury, NZ rugby. He played, coached and enjoyed huge success there. But apart from a brief playing spell in Grenoble, he has spent little time elsewhere.

Is it not possible that when one person has had such success in one specific culture, he finds it hard to adapt to other circumstances, especially a different country where different philosophies abound? Is the cultural difference the other side of the Tasman proving too much for him?

It was clear by his words in Wellington last year that Robbie Deans clearly did not understand the acute sensitivities of Australians, especially to words of criticism by a New Zealander.

Thus, two and a half years into Robbie Deans’ reign as the Wallabies' coach, and just 14 months away from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, many questions still remain about both the Australians’ maddening inconsistency and their personnel.

Players have come in and gone out. Some have been recalled, and others summarily dismissed. It has looked more like musical chairs than a structured selection policy.

Lote Tuqiri was thrown out of Australian rugby for some alleged misdemeanour and Lachie Turner, last season a regular, cannot even make the squad now. Another wing, Drew Mitchell, was dropped after the Ireland and England Tests but was then rushed back because of injuries.

This apparent turmoil will melt away as a concern if the Wallabies beat the All Blacks on Saturday. But if they lose, for a ninth successive time, to their old foes and in the process see the Bledisloe Cup remain in New Zealand hands, then the pressure will most surely mount on Deans.

Already, John O’Neill’s demand for a better than 56 per cent win ratio looks a busted flush. And in a land where other sports already knock rugby down to number four in interest, and losers are avoided like lepers, Robbie Deans and his Wallabies could have significant problems holding onto not just the interest of Australians, but to their respect.

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