Deans praises Mealamu for 100th milestone
Robbie Deans still takes immense satisfaction for helping position Keven Mealamu on the pathway to All Black greatness, even if the durable hooker's 100-cap milestone in tonight's Bledisloe Cup showdown could jeopardise his tenure as the Wallabies head coach.
Once Deans emerged from an inquisition centred on the Wallabies lack of success against New Zealand, his fractious relationship with Quade Cooper and Will Genia's supposed interest in moving to Japan, the former All Blacks assistant coach happily recalled his role in launching Mealamu's international career.
"I can still see it clearly. We had a selection meeting in Perth and in the initial (Super Rugby) draft for 2002, Kevvy didn't have a contract. It astounded us," he said.
Cut by his beloved Blues, Mealamu was in limbo until the New Zealand Rugby Union intervened and ensured the Chiefs offered him a lifeline at the start of a season that culminated with him making his test debut at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, ironically against a Welsh side coached by Steve Hansen.
Deans admitted there was resistance to selecting Mealamu in a largely experimental end of year tour squad to the UK and France as the panel of head coach John Mitchell, Mark 'Cowboy' Shaw and Kieran Crowley mulled over the options.
"At that stage the concerns over him were size and there were signs he wasn't such a good scrummager but we said he had to find a place for this bloke because he's got a future.
"And the rest," said Deans, "is history."
It didn't take long for Mealamu to address any fears about his suitability for test football.
After watching the loss to England at Twickenham and a draw with France in Paris he started in Cardiff and justified his selection as the All Blacks cruised to a 43-17 victory.
He was among six debutants that afternoon - Tony Woodcock and Rodney So'oialo also built significant All Blacks careers; Regan King and Paul Steinmetz were never capped again while Daniel Braid made intermittent appearances as Richie McCaw's back-up.
Barring injury, Mealamu has been a fixture in an All Blacks front row ever since his initiation, a scenario that doesn't surprise Deans who still regards the 33-year-old elder statesman as "a quality kid".
"I'm a great believer you get what you deserve in the long run and Kevvy's living proof of that.
"He works hard at what he does - the way he's mastered scrummaging is evidence of that and he's great within a group."
Deans said Mealamu's career could have been at a crossroads when he was rejected by the Blues, and without the New Zealand Rugby Union's intervention he might have been lost to the game.
"They're critical moments in a player's career. You don't know how they will respond to opportunity or rejection. Some can walk away, some can go offshore never to be seen again. They're sliding door moments," he said.
Deans thought Mealamu - who commuted between Auckland and Hamilton for the duration of the 2002 Super rugby season - would have eventually developed into one of the game's premier hookers regardless of the All Black selectors gamble.
"I think he would have found his way through anyway in time. That's evident now but that was his first opportunity and how blokes respond to that opportunity is key," he admitted.
Although they are now in opposition Deans said he and Mealamu speak when their paths cross -- like when the Wallabies visited the All Blacks dressing room after they retained the Bledisloe silverware with a 22-0 shut out at Eden Park in August.
It was the first time the Wallabies had visited their rivals shed since Deans reign started in 2008 and was a heartening experience for a coach with a foot in both camps.
"It was good to see those blokes, good to see them do well."