The domestic coaching career of Robbie Deans is without parallel in the annuals of trans-Tasman rugby.
A former All Black, Deans was the pin-up boy of the Canterbury team of his generation during a 12-year playing career.
Even greater acclaim has followed as one of the best coaches of the modern era.
After 17 years coaching professionally, Robbie still boasts a 70 per cent success rate.
He remains Super Rugby’s most successful coach six seasons after his departure from the competition, and wielded an enormous influence on the careers of a large number of players, including Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, who went on to anchor arguably the greatest All Black team of all-time.
Controversially overlooked as All Black coach himself, Robbie became the first foreigner to coach the Wallabies, concluding his time as Australia’s longest serving mentor, having lifted Australia from fifth on the IRB world rankings to second – a position they occupied for just short of three years.
Yet, beyond the imagery we see on television and the guarded statements recycled through the press, Robbie remains a personality that we don’t really know.
For the first time, Robbie opens up on his career: from the triumphs of his formative years where he was nearly lost to a first class cricketing career, through Canterbury’s glory days in the early 1980s and the experiences that shaped the man and the coach.
In this exclusive extract for The Roar, he also breaks the silence on his removal from the Wallabies position for the first time, examining in depth five turbulent years where the systemic and cultural challenges off the field were every bit as daunting and unrelenting as was confronting the best team on the planet.
Fed to the Lions
This is an exclusive extract from the upcoming biography of Robbie Deans, Red, Black & Gold – the Robbie Deans story
He was arguably the loudest critic prior to Robbie’s appointment. Yet Peter FitzSimons believes the Australian game was enriched by the work of its first foreign-born coach.
Robbie, the former Australian test lock says, departed the Wallabies well-regarded within rugby circles for the job that he had done. No other Australian coach had been so giving of his time and contributed so greatly to the community.
Robbie is so passionate about the game, FitzSimons says. He wants others to gain the same enjoyment out of it that he has had.
At the time of his appointment, FitzSimons argued against it. While he has enormous respect for New Zealanders, and New Zealand rugby, he believes the New Zealand Rugby Union would never appoint an Australian as All Blacks coach – let alone an Australian who had been passed over for the Wallaby position. His protests were not a shot at Robbie, whom he barely knew. FitzSimons was in fact ‘astounded’ that the incoming Wallaby coach had been passed over for the head coaching position in his homeland.
Robbie was already a great coach in 2007, FitzSimons contends. He is an even better one now for all that he experienced coaching the Wallabies. The point at the time of his anointment was that Robbie was not an Australian. Six years on, FitzSimons stands by his argument that an Australian should coach the national team.
He is quick to add that such was the manner in which Robbie embraced Australia, both the country and its people, his resistance is no longer valid where the last Wallaby coach is concerned. Robbie, FitzSimons declares, is half Australian. He still will be, even if he gains the All Blacks coaching job at some stage in the future. This is something the best-selling author believes should be inevitable, saying New Zealand rugby would be “crazy” to ignore a man who has already proven himself to be one of the best operators in the business.
Robbie is genuine and has fantastic values, FitzSimons says. And his legacy is a good one. In time, the Sydney Morning Herald columnist believes, it may be seen that Robbie actually overachieved with the Wallabies, when the quality of playing ‘cattle’ he had at his disposal is taken into account.
FitzSimons played in an era marked by some of the great on-field leaders in Wallaby history. Halfback Nick Farr-Jones and lock John Eales, both of whose career biographies he ended up writing, rate among the most outstanding and successful skippers the Wallabies have ever had. Flanker Simon Poidevin, first five-eighth Michael Lynagh, hooker Phil Kearns and second five-eighth Tim Horan are other strong-willed leaders who are FitzSimons’ contemporaries. Robbie, he argues, had no leaders of that ilk on which he could call. Not even close.
Leadership, FitzSimons believes, was one of the biggest single defects that prevented the Wallabies from pushing on to overtake the All Blacks after they had reeled in everyone else.
Given the FitzSimons’ stance towards his recruitment, it was probably an appropriate completion of the circle that it was with him that Robbie shared a morning coffee prior to his post-Lions meeting with the first-year ARU chief executive Bill Pulver. The series debrief, which had originally been scheduled for the Thursday following the third Test, was brought forward by Pulver to the Monday. The Wallaby coach was notified of the diary adjustment early on during the series.
The change did “trigger a flag” at the time, although Robbie says you have to trust that those you are dealing with are acting genuinely. He was informed at the meeting that his contract was being terminated with immediate effect.
While the loss of the British and Irish Lions series, after the Wallabies had capitulated in the deciding Test 36 hours earlier, was used as justification for Robbie’s removal, the background dealings at play became clear quickly.
Within 24 hours of Robbie’s exit, Pulver was introducing Ewen McKenzie as his successor and admitting publicly that the incumbent was going to be terminated regardless of the outcome of the third Test.
Pulver later indicated to the press at McKenzie’s unveiling that Robbie’s termination had been determined even before the Lions series began.
This was followed by press revelations that the ARU had solicited not just McKenzie, but also the ex-South African and Brumbies coach Jake White as well, with a view to inserting one of them in Robbie’s place. In White’s case, an interview had been conducted in Melbourne, just a third of the way through the Lions series.
Robbie is philosophical as he looks back on the affair. He refuses to allow the manner of his exit to tarnish what was a challenging yet enjoyable assignment coaching Australia. It provided a great deal of personal growth. If anything, it was the circumstances associated with the loss of the series to the British & Irish Lions, rather than his own exit following it, that provides the greatest frustration.
The Wallabies and Australian Rugby had entered the year promisingly positioned to take the next step towards becoming the game’s most dominant power.
“2012 had been a challenging year what with the injuries and the addition of Argentina to the Rugby Championship, which had added significantly to the travel burden, but we’d come out of it in good shape,” Robbie says.
“The players had shown plenty of resilience. Many of them had matured as Test performers in adverse circumstances.”
Pulver had started off making all the right noises where Robbie was concerned.
“You never presume anything,” Robbie says, “but one of Bill’s first comments to me when we met off-site before he’d even started in the job was that he understood the history [around the Wallabies staff set-up] and hoped to get into the position where I could appoint my own coaches.”
The comment suggested that Pulver, at this point anyway, saw a future for Robbie beyond the distance of his immediate contract, which was due to expire at the end of that year.
“From my perspective, the suggestion that I could gain a bit more direct control over the programme was an exciting prospect. The lack of autonomy had been one of the things that had been holding us back.”
So too were injuries, but the early rounds of Super Rugby showed that they weren’t going away.
Starting players hooker Tatafu Polota Nau, blindside flanker Scott Higginbotham and lock Sitaleki Timani were all rubbed off the selection template after suffering injuries playing for their states as was the captaincy contender David Pocock.
The outstanding flanker was lost for the season after damaging the anterior cruciate ligament of his knee during the first game of the year.
“We lost a huge amount of leadership with him [Pocock] because he is a bloke who stands up against the tide on and off the field. He’s prepared to do what’s right, he’s got the total respect of the group and he has the ability to be a momentum shifter in-game. Poey can stop any opponent in his tracks. He’s a huge influence and was a massive loss to the playing group.”
The high injury rate followed them right to the end.
“Even during the Lions Tests themselves, injuries were a constant.”
“It was a shame because it was evident that this team’s time was coming,’ Robbie says. “We were building depth and the adversity that the team had been through was only going to enhance our growth. We just needed to get to a point of continuity in terms of player availability.”
The practice of withdrawing Test players for preparation purposes had been standard procedure by the hosts on each of the previous three Lions tours where Australia (2001), New Zealand (2005) and South Africa (2009) had all gone on to win the series.
In both 2001 and 2005, the home side had arranged a warm-up match to help bring their combination together. This option was unavailable to Robbie due to the extension of the Super season.
The request around player availability required a sacrifice from the state programmes in the interest of the national side to enhance the Wallabies’ prospects of success against the Lions.
For New Zealand and South Africa previously, the concept had been a no-brainer. In Australia, nothing is so simple. Hindsight shows that this issue provided the first sign that the support for the Wallaby coach from the ARU heavies wasn’t all it seemed.
“The programme had been well communicated and understood, dating back long before Bill [Pulver] had started,” Robbie says. “But while the board made the right noises, it never got to the point where they had a firm stance on it.
“We were able to name a protected 25, but the ground rules then changed pretty much straight away, with the situation being dependent on the circumstances at the time the group was due to actually assemble.”
“The lack of a clear stance around the protected player group raised the first doubt for me as to whether Bill was making all of his own decisions. If he wasn’t, all of the dialogue between us was going to be futile.”
The lack of clarity around player access only adds to the evidence that movement towards a coaching coup was under way well before the Lions series started. Assistant coaches Tony McGahan and Nick Scrivener [who had not been appointed by Robbie] had secretly met with Pulver. The pair must have been surprised when Pulver promptly informed Robbie of their activity.
Scrivener ultimately survived the regime change to retain his position on the coaching staff while McGahan found himself a job coaching the Rebels.
Subsequent revelations from forwards coach Andrew Blades about a number of clandestine meetings involving players during the lead-up to the third Test highlight the distraction Robbie’s impending removal created. Players were aware, as were members of the coaching staff.
A number of players who were involved at the time preferred not to be named when approached by the author to confirm and expand on the Blades allegation.
They believe it had played a part in the Wallabies performance, or lack of, in the series decider. Their argument was based on the history, where the team had always responded when the pressure was on their coach. There was also resentment at the involvement of certain players in the movement to oust Robbie, pursuing an agenda to gain an outcome from which they expected to benefit.
The passive nature of the Australian performance in the third Test was all the more surprising given the strength of resolve that had been shown to come-from-behind and win in Melbourne the previous week, and the fact that the series was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Robbie is unsure as to the role the speculation around his own future played in the minds of his players.
“Only the individuals themselves, be they players, team staff or union administrators know what was going on through that time and what role, if any, they played in it.”
A total lack of alignment ring-fenced this episode. It had openly spread to the team the following morning when it gathered prior to disassembling in the afternoon.
McGahan had made prior arrangements to return home early and didn’t attend. O’Connor also didn’t front. He was sacked by the ARU later in the year for being intoxicated at Perth airport the morning after a Test match. Some players got quite emotional with Robbie, which indicated their knowledge as to his fate, after he had made what was to be his last address to them as Wallaby coach.
As he had done the first time he had spoken to the players as Australian coach, five years earlier, Robbie urged them to push on, in this instance when they returned to Super Rugby. He noted that they were all up for reselection for the Rugby Championship, himself included.
Perhaps the best indicator of what had gone on was the mood. The body language among some of the players was notably poor.
“What probably summed it all up was the contribution of the leadership to that meeting,” Robbie says. “The only thing that they offered was to ask whether there would be cab charge cards available to cover the cost of transport from the airport to their homes!”
It was clear that some of the players couldn’t get away quickly enough.
“It was underwhelming,” Robbie says of the ARU’s conduct in the lead-up to and through his final campaign.
“It’s not something that I have experienced a lot of where the interactions aren’t genuine. I suspect they were meant to be, but there was intervention from other parties. There was always that possibility in a situation where you had someone [Pulver] who was new to the industry and had no background.
“Ultimately, it all rests on alignment both in purpose and actions. I aspired for the Wallabies to enjoy more than aberrational success. To make it to the number one ranking and to stay there.
“That requires everyone to buy in. The leadership comes from the top, in this case the ARU, and flows down through the various stakeholders at every level. The same collective purpose.
“The best and most successful outfits, be they sporting or business, have that. We never did.”
Despite this, Robbie got the Wallabies to second in the world and kept them in that position for just short of three years. Results in the immediate aftermath of his departure quickly put that achievement into perspective. McKenzie’s Wallabies lost all three games to New Zealand and never looked a winning chance in any of them while also crashing to a first ever loss to South Africa in Brisbane.
Red, Black & Gold – the Robbie Deans story, is published in Australia by Hardie Grant. It is authored by Matt McIlraith, who as All Black, Wallaby and Crusaders media manager, has observed much of Robbie’s career first hand. This gave him both up close insight into the man and the coach, but also unrivalled access to the game’s top players and personalities.