Intense scrutiny having no adverse effect on a relaxed and engaging Robbie Deans
Wallabies coach makes his own big call, restoring veteran George Smith
George Smith in happy mood after learning of his Test recall. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
A feature of the last six weeks in Australia is how Robbie Deans has been the sole voice of the Wallabies’ coaching staff. There hasn’t been a sign of ex-Munster coach Tony McGahan (defence coach), Nick Scrivener (skills coach), Andrew Blades (scrum coach) and Nathan Sharpe (consultant).
Nor is it as if Deans, a Kiwi under intense scrutiny entering his sixth year as head coach and out of contract at the end of the year, is especially comfortable, talkative or revealing in the media glare, but yesterday he has rarely been so relaxed, engaging, humorous and philosophical.
Prior to confirmation of Deans’ selection for tomorrow’s third Test, now conceivably even more possibly his last selection regardless of the result, the ABC Grandstand radio programme yesterday featured an interview with Eddie Jones.
The former Wallabies’ coach from 2001 to ‘05 for 57 Tests, Jones is, in stark contrast, far from reticent and he strongly suggested this would be Deans’ last game in charge, and that the ARU had lined up the 2007 South African World Cup-winning coach Jake White, currently in his second year with the Brumbies.
Another feature of this tour has been the way White, and his Queensland Reds counterpart, Ewen MacKenzie, have been openly touted, on an almost daily basis, to replace Deans. Indeed, it hasn’t been especially edifying and has been more akin to a Presidential election, superseded only by Kevin Rudd replacing Julia Gillard.
As befitting a coach who survived a full four-year terms as Springboks’ coach, White is a helluva politician as well as a decorated head coach who has overseen a rejuvenation of the Brumbies. He hasn’t been shy about expressing his interest in a return to the Test arena with the Wallabies, with England another long-held ambition.
MacKenzie’s candidature has been toned down since he was openly linked with the Irish job when Declan Kidney’s contract was not renewed, and it is understood that White is supported by ARU CEO Bill Pullver.
There has been widespread speculation as to the musical chairs which would follow a change to the head coaching position of Deans, and one of the consequences which has been speculated upon is that McGahan would become the head coach of the Melbourne Rebels.
Deans brushed off a slightly cruel but inevitable question about Jones’ observations earlier in the day with a smile. “First thing, I’m not aware so I’m loathe to comment. Our priority’s Saturday,” he said.
But when he was asked what it was like, as a coach, to make calls that are going to cause huge debate and reaction, ala Gatland’s omission of O’Driscoll, he began being unusually philosophical in that clipped way of his, when you’re never sure if the pauses are interruptions or conclusions.
“It’s part of it, and that interest is great. It doesn’t make it any easier but I guess the fact that there is so much opinion, and so much controversy if you like, of tight calls means you’ve got choice, and that’s what we’re tasked to do; clear the track and find a way through, find a way to succeed.”
Not the heart
That Gatland had also said his decision had been made with the head, and not the heart, had resonance with Deans. “Oh yea. You need to keep coming back to not doing the right thing but doing what’s right. A big difference. And of course not everyone will agree on it.
“But we get a brief time in this game, so we want to make the most of it and that’s what Warren is looking to do. It’s a totally understandable decision from him. To suggest there’s no heart in it is probably stretching it a little bit.”
Ironically, Deans’ biggest call undoubtedly was to restore a veteran from the 2001 Lions tour here, George Smith, for his first game of any kind in six weeks and first Test in four years. Referencing his last Test, and the two best 40-minute performances he’d seen in his time as Wallabies coach from Smith and David Pocock in turn, the Wallabies’ coaching staff had envisaged playing both. But the need for Smith’s leadership had clearly been intensified by the loss of Pocock and then the threat hanging over James Horwill’s participation.
With Michael Hooper dropping to the bench to the exclusion of the equally unlucky Liam Gill, Deans has also recalled the “versatility” of loose forward Ben McCalman in a risky 6-2 split on the bench. He would not divulge who was covering Adam Ashley-Cooper (“Hopefully you’ll never find out”) but presumably this would mean quite a reshuffle with maybe Israel Folau moving in from the wing.
Deans is clearly relishing the game, and asked where this game ranked in a coaching career, he said: “The best because it is the next and it is great to have a game in front of you. I am not looking forward to the day when I don’t.”
Temporarily at any rate his demeanour hinted that such a day may be sooner rather than later.