By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Upon guiding Australia to victory over Ireland in his first test match as coach, Robbie Deans remarked that only the accents were different between the players in his charge and those across the Tasman sea in his homeland of New Zealand.
Some five years on and 73 tests later, the Wallabies’ first foreign coach parted ways with Australia, both parties fatigued by communication problems throughout a long and difficult marriage of convenience.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) announced in a statement on Tuesday that Deans had stepped down from the post, casting the move as a beaten man falling on his sword in the wake of Australia’s record defeat 41-16 in the series-decider against the British and Irish Lions.
Few would have been convinced the move was voluntary and ARU chief Bill Pulver made a mockery of the statement by confirming his fate had been sealed well before the final, crushing loss.
‘The worst-kept secret in Australian rugby’, as Pulver termed it, was confirmed a few hours later when he unveiled local favourite Ewen McKenzie as Deans’s replacement, effectively jettisoning what critics branded the “foreign experiment”.
Deans was to have taken the Wallabies through to the end of the season, but the ARU had quietly sounded out McKenzie and rival candidate Jake White, a World Cup-winning coach with South Africa, in a review process dating back months.
The ARU will nonetheless have felt exonerated after seeing the Wallabies’ shambolic opening quarter at Sydney’s Olympic stadium on Saturday, when their scrum disintegrated under pressure to surrender a rash of penalties and gift the Lions a massive headstart.
For all of his forwards’ grit in the opening two tests, their humbling in the third was a stark reminder that Deans had failed to build a solid enough pack despite a record five-and-a-half years in charge.
Discipline problems during the Lions series were another timely reminder of a litany of off-field indiscretions that dogged Deans throughout his tenure.
Wayward backs James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale were photographed at a fast food outlet at four in the morning in the leadup to the second test, an embarrassing lapse that went unpunished at the selection table.
The pair’s easy ride in the team reinforced a perception that Deans was soft on team discipline and coddling of favourites. Local media reported a rift between senior and junior players.
Like Deans’s long pampering of the brash young pair, the ARU stuck by their man through thick and thin, refusing time and again to pander to media-driven campaigns to send the 53-year-old packing.
Saddled with an understrength pack, but blessed with an embarrassment of backline riches, Deans was recruited in 2007 to revive a Wallabies’ franchise brought low by the retirements of a generation of greats and smarting after a dismal quarter-final exit at that year’s World Cup.
Deans had missed out on the top job for New Zealand after Graham Henry convinced rugby authorities to retain him in the role, but brought a brilliant CV, boasting five Super Rugby titles with the Canterbury Crusaders, a record unmatched in the southern hemisphere competition.
Deans’s defection irked people on both sides of the Tasman.
Nicknamed ‘Dingo’ Deans at home, the former All Black shrugged off the criticism to make a positive start in the role, guiding Australia to a runner-up performance in their first Tri-Nations the following year.
Amiable and softly-spoken but unfailing cagey at media appearances, Deans also displayed a ruthless streak, ending the international careers of captain Stirling Mortlock and flanker George Smith, while marginalising outspoken playmaker Matt Giteau.
Calls for his dismissal began building in earnest as early as 2009, as the Wallabies crashed to third in the Tri-Nations and suffered a shock loss to Scotland.
Deans pressed on, unearthing a duo of eye-catching playmakers in Quade Cooper and Will Genia, and gradually building a competitive side.
He broke a 40-year victory drought in the highveld of South Africa and swept to a first Tri-Nations title in a decade, when they upset New Zealand to win the truncated tournament of 2011.
Deans was awarded a contract extension and headed to the World Cup on a rare tide of public good-will but the criticism ramped up again as soon as the Wallabies crashed out at the semi-finals in a stinging loss to the hosts.
The following year was to be Deans’s ‘annus horribilis’ as an astonishing injury toll piled up and New Zealand-born flyhalf Cooper launched an extraordinary public attack on the from the sidelines.
Cooper’s “toxic environment” comments reinforced perceptions of a team lacking discipline and hostage to the whims of a few out-sized personalities.
While Deans marginalised Cooper for the Lions series, disciplinary problems were to dog the Wallabies throughout.
Beale was hastily rehabilitated in time for the first test after a stint in a private health clinic to deal with alcohol issues, while winger Digby Ioane had a warrant issued for his arrest mid-series, after missing a court date to face an assault charge.
In addressing the distractions, Deans, in his verbose way, mouthed truisms about dealing with the “unexpected” but can surely have had little doubt about what was to come following the Wallabies’ crushing loss on Saturday.
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)