Robbie Deans has had some successes, but the time has come for the Wallabies to move on.
Photo: Getty Images
SOAPBOX: The time is right for the Wallabies to change coaches to prepare for the next World Cup...
When considering Robbie Deans' position as Wallabies coach, there are a couple of things that first need to be taken out of the equation. One is the obscene jingoistic nonsense that occasionally rears its head, that deems Deans somehow inappropriate for the role because he is a New Zealander.
Another is the irrational idea that Australia are constantly underperforming and that when everything eventually goes right they will take their rightful place at the top of the world rugby tree. Given the relative paucity of the nation's playing stocks and competition for athletic talent with NRL and AFL, it's a wonder we are regularly able to defeat the Northern Hemisphere nations let alone compete with New Zealand and South Africa. We are no more than a competitive rugby nation that occasionally punches above its weight.
But even taking into account those things, it is time Australian rugby acknowledged Deans' contribution over the last four years, and let him go in favour of Ewen McKenzie.
But let's look at that contribution, which is not insignificant. Results wise, highlights include the famous win on the high veldt in 2010, the stirring Brisbane win over New Zealand in 2011 and the 59-16 thumping of France in Paris. And for a middle-drawer side, winning the Tri-Nations in 2011 and finishing third in the World Cup is no bad effort either.
Then there are the players who have blossomed under him. Both David Pocock and Will Genia have firmly established themselves as among the best handful of players in the world, while James O'Connor has much to thank Deans for in his remarkable career that has featured 36 caps by the age of 22 – all under Deans.
It's over, Robbie
Despite all that, it's still the end. The Wallabies' underwhelming 2012 can only partly be excused by injuries – and in the circumstances they have actually done okay – but the problem is one of style, not of personnel.
Up until the last few years, Australia could always be characterised by a certain manner of play, whether it was the dash and heart of Bob Dwyer's sides, the clinical precision of Rod McQueen's or the wily nous of Eddie Jones'.
In addition, the best sides around now have particular nuances – we can even describe it as personality – to their play that make them both effective and entertaining to watch. Look at Warren Gatland's Wales as a prime example, or the fact that Steve Hansen has somehow made the All Blacks' backs more devastating than before, while still following old Graham Henry habits in other ways. Heyneke Meyer has already stamped his authority on the Springboks by bringing coherence and fluidity back to their game.
But when it comes to identifying a 'Robbie Deans' style of play, it is difficult to pinpoint. In the last 18 months, Australia engaged in scrappy and directionless games as they plodded through with a conservative mindset. Most worrying has been the inability, in some matches, to make decisions and take responsibility. To be the active team rather than the passive team. And indecision and hesitation inevitably leads to error-ridden displays like that we saw against Argentina.
One cannot imagine that Deans is deficient tactically or after four years he is 'still working things out'. Instead, maybe the problem is one of communication and man-management, resulting in the team unable to play according their coach's script. A lack of ability may be a factor, but also a lack of faith, perhaps.
Quade Cooper talking of a 'toxic' environment may be hyperbole, but one does get the sense that there is something not quite right in the discourse between coach and players, which of course makes its way onto the pitch.
Let's also not forget Matt Giteau's claims that Deans has problems relating to players, and Richie McCaw's words in his new autobiography where he states that Deans does not listen to assistant coaches.
Next in line
In many sports, Australia can cope with losing if we do it with some level of ambition. Under Deans, the Wallabies invariably lose ignominiously (Scotland twice, Samoa, Ireland in the World Cup). Put simply: given the backs at their disposal (when fit), Australia must play expansively. Bryan Habana on his own scored the same number of tries as the Wallabies during the Rugby Championship (seven).
McKenzie is the perfect candidate, which is just as well as he is the only candidate. The long-time Australia coach-in-waiting was a World Cup winner as a player, has coached two Super Rugby sides and Stade Francais. At 47 he is in the prime of his coaching life.
But more importantly, his success with the Reds in 2011 proves he can get the best out of a team's specific talents, rather than try to shoehorn a pre-conceived strategy onto unsuitable players, as Deans has. He can deal with the unpredictable and frustrating (Cooper) and can get gold out of the apparently innocuous (with the Reds, Beau Robinson and Mike Harris). This comes down, simply, to rapport.
McKenzie's appointment might also be the one thing that could entice Cooper to remain in the code. John O'Neill's exit from the ARU could well have a bearing on Deans' immediate future, with the sensible move being to say goodbye after the European tour, however it goes, and install McKenzie in good time for the international season of 2013.
So while Deans does not deserve the mean-spirited opprobrium that periodically comes his way from members of the press, nor such unnecessary outbursts as Cooper's, it is time for him to move on. Perhaps a lucrative coaching job in France will make him smile.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
Follow BigPond Sport on Twitter: @bigpondsport