Seconds out as Henry and Deans step into the ring

Two Kiwi coaches meet today in Sydney: one in charge of New Zealand, the other Australia. Peter Bills considers a controversy that has split a whole nation down the middle
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The Independent Online

Boxing had Ali v Frazier and Nicklaus v Palmer lit up America's golf courses in the 1960s. Nadal v Federer at Wimbledon recently was a classic match-up too.

Now comes Henry v Deans, rugby's answer to such great sporting contests. It might not quite be a "Thrilla in Manilla", like Ali's famed encounter with Frazier in the Philippines in 1975, but in the 15-man game it is a novel concept all the same.

There is actually a Test match between Australia and New Zealand going on in Sydney today, but you might not know it, given the hysteria surrounding the first meeting of two Kiwi coaches, Robbie Deans and Graham Henry, in international rugby. This clash of personalities has dominated the build-up to the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations match at the ANZ Stadium.

To understand why there has been such a fuss about the first meeting between the two men since Deans, the coach of the Super 14 champions, Christ-church's Crusaders, defected to Australia to take charge of the Wallabies, you have to understand the background. Henry was excoriated at home after the All Blacks blew their World Cup hopes in the quarter-final against France in Cardiff last October. He seemed doomed to be sacked, and Deans was the obvious replacement.

But then, at the 11th hour, Henry re-applied for his job. To the astonishment of his nation – and himself – the New Zealand Rugby Union re-appointed him. Deans, who was about to win his fifth Super rugby title with the Crusaders and had applied for the national job, was immediately snapped up by the shrewd Australians.

So now they come together, like warring brothers, and their confrontation has been manna from heaven for the media on both sides of the Tasman Sea. A feeding frenzy has developed, with any words from or about the protagonists greedily seized upon. But what do the men themselves say?

Henry says he re-applied for his job, despite the shattering World Cup failure, because he thought that walking away voluntarily would have let down the young players in his charge. So he re-applied and was interviewed for his own position.

"I did not feel the interview had gone well and I had no expectations whatsoever after it," he said. "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 been given the job.

"I thought Robbie was still going to get the job," he said. "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."

Did Henry look forward to meeting his old rival? "Well, I'm sure the public will be interested in that" he said, enigmatically.

For Deans, lifting the Super 14 trophy and then boarding the plane for Sydney within 48 hours represented the clearing of an emotional barrier.

"The fact that I have ended up coaching against the nation I played for is novel," said the man who won five caps as a full-back in the early 1980s and was an assistant to the All Black coach John Mitchell from 2001 to 2003.

"I sought the counsel of John Wright [the New Zealand cricketer who went on to coach 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 [his younger brother, who won 10 caps as a fly-half in the later 1980s] 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, 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 Henry and Deans meet up, in front of more than 70,000 people, will be highly instructive.

GRAHAM HENRY (62)

Domestic coaching career: Auckland (1992-1997), four National Provincial Championship titles: Blues (1996-1998), two Super 12 titles; technical adviser to Blues (2003).

Test coaching career: Wales (1998-2002), W22 D1 L 13; British & Irish Lions to Australia (2001), lost Test series 2-1; All Blacks (2004-present) W49 L7.

IRB Coach of the Year: 2005, 2006.

Coached All Blacks to 3-0 win over 2005 British & Irish Lions. Won Tri-Nations: 2005, 2006, 2007.

ROBBIE DEANS (47)

Domestic playing career: Canterbury and Grenoble.

Test career: 19 games for the All Blacks, winning five Test caps.

Coaching career: Canterbury (1997-2000), one National Provincial Championship title; Crusaders (2000-2008), five Super 12/14 titles.

All Black assistant coach (2001-2003); Head coach, Australia (2008-).

Current Test record: W4 L0

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