Inside the mind of Robbie Deans

01:43, Jan 31 2009
Old garb: Robbie Deans in his final season coaching the Crusaders.

It's the morning of Robbie Deans' golden Super 14 farewell and the Crusaders coach is holding court in a St Albans cafe.

This could be called the Crusaders' outer office, a buzzy place called Meshino, but it could be machismo, as it's a Leon MacDonald spiral punt from the team's training base. Deans quips that it's become a popular place because "people think they'll see DC (Dan Carter)".

But it's coaches who take centre stage on a brisk Saturday morning. Crusaders assistant Mark Hammett and trainer Ashley Jones are also having convivial coffees.

Deans is obviously in his element as he banters with a barista and checks to see if he still has a tab. He seems to know several coffee quaffers, too.

Cafe patrons approach his table and politely offer their best wishes for the Super 14 final and his new career over the Tasman. One says: "I hope we still see your smiling face here again."

"Go Crusaders," whispers a toddler, with some prompting from mum, who adds: "Her dad is a big fan."


Deans ribs a man who drops in for take-out coffee in the middle of his morning stroll, then wishes him luck for his afternoon golf game.

You would hardly guess that this was a man on the brink of one of the biggest and most emotional evenings of his coaching career. But chewing the fat helps while away the Groundhog Day grind in the hours leading up to evening kick-offs.

He has a couple of hours to kill before a catch-up with Hammett and a pre-match chat with South African referee Mark Lawrence. So is the Super 14 coach always this laidback?

Deans says his wife, Penny, who also pops into the cafe, reckons "I get testier in times like this". "But I refute that," he laughs.

He is not, by any stretch, an emotional man. But he does admit to some flutters in his final week. "The reality is I've had moments, just as you do when you get close to the contest, when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I've had moments like that where I've been talking to people ... and it's dawned on me that that won't happen as spontaneously in the future. And there's been that welling-up inside."

But there were no tears at AMI Stadium last Saturday after the final whistle sounded the Crusaders' 20-12 win over the Waratahs. No wistful backward glances either, just that familiar broad grin as he was chaired aloft on the brawny shoulders of Brad Thorn and Reuben Thorne.

Deans was still smiling as the players cleared their throats to sing "Robbie, Robbie, Robbie, Oi, Oi, Oi" while they paraded pitch-side with another trophy.

He even held back the floodgates when he called on Thorne and Caleb Ralph to help him drive the side's ceremonial sword into the sward.

The day after the win, Deans emptied his office at Rugby Park, joined his partying players for one last lunch, went with Penny to watch a daughter play netball, then headed home.

He was up at sparrow's chirp to catch the Monday-morning red-eye flight to Sydney. Four hours later, he announced the Wallabies test team and donned the team's garish garb for a stroll down Manly Beach parade with Australian skipper Stirling Mortlock.

Knowing the Crusaders team is in good hands makes it easier to walk away, Deans says.

"It would be easy to stay, but I'd be staying in my comfort zone and that's just not my way. I wouldn't be practising what I preach if I did that. And the other reason is I would be denying access to the next generation (of coaches). It's just natural evolution."

Having decided to go, Deans dismissed coaching another club or franchise off-shore. He discovered he was "very excited about the international level" again. "It was a no-brainer, for me."

But once he got the All Blacks' rebuff and became aware of another opportunity, his decision was easy.

He once watched his old Glenmark and Canterbury coach, Alex Wyllie, head overseas after his All Blacks coaching stint and wondered if he could do that.

"I didn't really come to a conclusion. But when it came down to (accepting Australia's offer), it was actually very straight forward, which surprised me."

Cynics will say Deans went for the dosh, for a four-year contract Australian scribes have estimated to be worth several million dollars.

But his motivation was much more visceral. "They wanted me, first and foremost, and they believed in what I had to bring."

Robbie Deans' Crusaders coaching career has been well-documented: Five Super rugby titles in nine seasons and an unprecedented unbeaten year in 2002 speak for themselves.

Deans also received the mucky end of the macrocarpa twig three times from the New Zealand Rugby Union. In 2001, he was passed over as head coach for the less-experienced and less-mature John Mitchell. He became Mitchell's coaching co-ordinator, but the pair were sacked after a World Cup semi-final exit in 2003.

He offered himself again late last year, but the NZRU opted to retain Graham Henry and his coaching team despite the All Blacks' calamitous World Cup quarter-final crash in Cardiff.

"There's no doubt that history made it easier for me make that decision (to go to Australia). I'd given it a crack. There probably wasn't a helluva lot more I could do ... to gain that opportunity here ... They certainly gave me a pretty clear message that I was best to chase something available."

So did Deans find it difficult having his brother-in-law and former Canterbury and All Black team-mate Jock Hobbs involved as NZRU chairman? "It's probably more difficult for him than me, as evidenced by his actions," Deans said.

Have they had to work hard at maintaining their relationship? "For me, it's not an issue. I think Jock probably has to work hard at it. He finds it more difficult to split the lines between the personal and the circumstance."

Deans felt having a brother-in-law as NZRU chairman made it "less likely that I would be successful because of the suggestion (of nepotism)."

He says he has moved on and is looking forward, not back. Besides, he insists his situation is no different to a player having to deal with non-selection.

"I've often said to players who have been upset over selections, `Don't worry, players last longer than coaches I'll be gone before you know it'.

"But I've been lucky, I guess, in so far as I've broken the mould to some extent, because this is a very tenuous industry."

Deans was appointed Canterbury NPC coach at the end of 1996 and became Crusaders manager the following year with his Canterbury and All Blacks team-mate Wayne Smith as head coach. Deans was "very conscious, at the front end, that I would only get one crack at it and it was likely to be very brief. And I was keen to do it well".

Managing was a means to an end, an option he took "so I could be exposed to the professional game and practices, and the people involved, most importantly. I thought that would give me the best chance to make a success of (coaching)."

When Smith was appointed All Blacks coach in 2000 after taking the Crusaders to two Super 12 titles, Deans stepped up as head coach, leapfrogging Steve Hansen.

At his job interview, he was asked about his philosophy and said, "it was one of wanting the players to have the same experience I was lucky enough to have".

For 12 years, as manager and coach, his commitment has been unquestionable. He juggled the job for two years with his All Blacks' assistant duties but says the Crusaders always came first.

"You have to have a sole focus. At the time I was appointed to the All Blacks, the (Crusaders) board said no, I couldn't do the All Blacks.

"I said, `fine'. So they said, `so you're not doing the Crusaders then?' I said, `no, I'm not doing the All Blacks'," he says, laughing. "So they allowed me to do both."

Asked to rate the Crusaders' winning campaigns, Deans says the unbeaten year in 2002 was "obviously special and may never happen again"; that the 2005 team was "in terms of maturity, probably the peak"; but the 2008 side was "probably the best team, though it's a lot younger in some areas".

"No, erase all that," he implores. "It's just ludicrous making comparisons. The one I'm in at the time is the favourite. And, if they ever went head to head, I can only coach one of them, so forget it."

The Crusaders' 10th placing in 2001 the worst of Deans' career was also a watershed. There were tensions that year between Smith and Hansen, who would later go on to become Henry's assistant coach in Wales after leading Canterbury to the 2001 NPC title.

But after three years as champions, the Crusaders' key players were at risk of rugby burnout. Thirteen Crusaders toured at the end of 2000 with the All Blacks and another five were on a New Zealand A tour.

Deans had his eyes opened on an off-season tour of overseas sports franchises. He realised the old "go-harder approach wasn't going to cut it any more". The Crusaders moved from a generic training approach to individually tailored programmes. They stopped "flogging everyone for the benefit of the few". "And we've never looked back."

Deans was once likened by Don Hayes, his 2003-04 coaching assistant, to the son who inherits the family farm and melds old values with modern methods. The 1980s Canterbury Ranfurly Shield hero admits he changed as a coach down the years.

It was very much the my-way-or-the-highway approach at the outset. "It's an ex-player's mentality. You want to get the job done. You have this outlook that everything happens on the grass, and that's the only place of importance.

"The reality is it's broader than that. That's where the managing experience was good for me. You must have good people around you and you have to give them access and licence to bring what they have.

"If you don't, you are self-limiting. Obviously there has to be one reference point, as in one fall guy. But you give yourself a much better chance if you have an inclusive approach, if you ask more than you tell.

"If you're just telling all the time, you are driving people into decline or submission and you get less from them when it really matters."

Deans was never afraid to challenge players or put personal loyalty aside and make tough selection calls.

He dropped All Black Andrew Mehrtens to club rugby in 2001 and just last week had to tell Japan-bound stalwart wing Caleb Ralph he would not be saying sayonara on the pitch in the Super 14 final.

"You've got to be true to yourself and to the team," says Deans, who believes he still maintains good relations with players he has had to drop during the years.

Mehrtens is a case in point. "I met George, Mehrts' son, a couple of weeks ago when they came home (from France, where Mehrtens, now 35, is still playing for Toulon). Mehrts married Jacqui, who lived two doors down from us ... she was one of our primary babysitters for years. We made the introduction. The first one went over Mehrts' head because he came back to me later and said: `why didn't you introduce me to her earlier', and I said: `I did'."

Deans "gets "a lot of enjoyment watching these guys grow, post-rugby". "You should see how fit Mehrts is now."

He takes pride in his former players and coaching assistants thriving as coaches in their own right, citing ex-hooker Hammett, Colin Cooper (Hurricanes), Vern Cotter (French club Clermont Auvergne), and Todd Blackadder, who Deans encouraged to come back to Tasman from Scotland, "because I thought he could become my potential successor".

Deans dismisses negative talk that the Crusaders bubble is about to burst because he and key players like Thorne, Ralph, Mose Tuiali'i and Carter (for a short-term sabbatical) may be leaving.

He says the turnover rate has been phenomenal each year but the Crusaders have survived and thrived.

"There's a lot of good work going on in the organisation in terms of development and ensuring it doesn't stagnate. I'm very confident in the quality of people we've got in this organisation, through the academy and around this (Super 14) group itself.

"They will take it to a better place."

No-one, he insists, is irreplaceable coach or player. He thinks Blackadder, Hammett and ex-All Black back Daryl Gibson, all Super 12 winners as players, could coach the team to even greater heights.

"Mehrts was the best first five-eighths in the world. Dan Carter is the best first five-eighths now. There's a queue of people who want in. They are toiling away over there (in the Rugby Park gym), waiting for the opportunity."

The time is ripe for a move, family-wise. Deans has always made time, as much as he could, in his coaching schedule for kids' sport and commitments. He says Penny, a guiding light in ensuring Crusaders wives', partners' and children's needs are not neglected while their menfolk tour, has been "a huge source of inspiration, and perspective, as have the kids", Sam, 18, Annabel, 17 and Sophie, 12.

"I am lucky to do what I do, but at the end of the day, there are other things in life that are equally important."

Sam is in his first year at Canterbury University and will stay here to study. But the family, who have holidayed regularly in Australia, will enjoy their trans-Tasman foray.

Eyebrows have been raised, by ex-All Blacks and old Wallabies alike, at Deans' decision to coach the old foe.

But he says "it's not that radical. Every week I coach against players (in the Super 14) who I've coached or coaches I've coached with."

But Deans is being slightly disingenuous. He has never before coached against a team he played for. "True, that's where it will be novel."

Has he thought about how he will feel on July 26, at the time of the first Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney? Is he prepared for an emotional response when God Defend New Zealand and Advance Australia Fair blare, when he takes his seat in the coaching box opposite old Crusaders colleagues Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen and when he looks down the All Black line, led by Richie McCaw, his Crusaders captain?

"Without a doubt, it will be surreal," he says. "But after my appointment they played some footage of a Bledisloe Cup fixture. I was as fascinated as anybody as to how I would respond to that. And I just had an absolute rush of excitement about the opportunity to coach at that level again."

Deans says the reaction in New Zealand to his move has been largely positive, even at venues like Wellington and Waikato where, historically, he has copped some flak as a Cantab.

But he hasn't yet heard what brother Bruce, a fellow Canterbury All Black, thinks about him wearing Wallabies' colours.

The pair were almost inseparable in their playing days, but don't "see as much of each other as I'd like now", due to Robbie's coaching commitments and Bruce's successful farming ventures. "It's just the natural evolution of life."

But he anticipates he will see family and friends almost as often now he's in Sydney as he did while working long hours for the Crusaders cause.

Deans sees his new role as being "good" for the sport. "The game is the key here, it's a great game and I'm lucky to be part of it. In an ironic way (coaching Australia) is going to create a bit of interest and there is a need for some of that."

While Deans doesn't look too far ahead, he says, he is looking forward to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. "It's a great opportunity for a great part of the world to showcase itself it to the world. I see my part within that is to ensure it is a good event, there is competition and it's not a one-horse race."

Will he seek the All Blacks coaching job beyond that campaign? "No's not the answer," he says. "I aspire to do this (Wallabies) job really well. What happens after that, who knows, and I will not be spending any time thinking about it. But I hope I've still got a hunger (for coaching) at that point."

First things first, and Deans' immediate challenge is to rebuild a Wallabies side into a world rugby force.

He will take over to Australia his time-honoured and tested philosophies to complement the Wallabies' own culture. "I won't be reverting to type, it won't be `tell, tell, tell'."

He says there are "well-documented" areas where the Wallabies need to improve, including the front row. But he laughs at a suggestion he could be importing Australian-born Canterbury propping brothers Ben and Owen Franks. "Not that I'm aware of ..."

There is already a Canterbury enclave in Sydney. Deans has gathered around him familiar faces in video analyst Andrew Sullivan and media manager Matt McIlraith. Nor is Deans' exile permanent. The waters of the Waimakariri will draw the avid jet-boater home. "There aren't that many rivers over there," he says.

He also looks forward to watching the Crusaders "this time next year".

"I may have to watch training in a balaclava though."

For years, he traipsed across AMI Stadium after that magical after-match hour in the dressing sheds, looked up at the glowing lights in the hospitality boxes and stands, and told his coaching off-siders, possibly to the point of monotony, "I can't wait to be up there and be entertained".

"Now I'm going to get that opportunity ... I'm confident the outfit will continue to thrive. And I will take pleasure in that, possibly more so than when I was there."

The Press