James O’Connor holds Robbie Deans’s future in his hands

Robbie Deans has put his future as Wallabies coach in the hands of James O’Connor, and if last weekend’s performance is repeated it may well be the last meaningful decision he makes.
Within 48 hours we will know whether this was a clever vote of confidence prompting the young tyro to new heights, or a costly error. Last Saturday evening in Brisbane O’Connor was comprehensively outplayed by British and Irish Lions fly half Jonny Sexton. The Irishman directed his side around the field, kicked cleverly and made the right decisions for the team. O’Connor, in contrast, lacked control and looked to create chances for himself rather than setting up his teammates. In modern rugby, with players so fast and fit, and defences so well-organised, it is rare for tries to be scored in first phase play: it is the job of the fly half to read the game and create space so a scoring opportunity develops after multiple phases.

 

Deans has been Australia’s coach for five years. Only once topping the Tri Nations’ table in that time, the Wallabies’ performance at the 2011 World Cup was gutsy but staid. Only qualifying for the knockout stages as group runners-up, they narrowly beat South Africa in the quarters before succumbing to arch rivals New Zealand in the semi-final without scoring a try. Ewen McKenzie had great success as coach of the Queensland Reds. Victory in the 2011 Super 15 tournament, and the attacking brand of rugby played to achieve it, has made McKenzie hugely popular and he is seen by many as next Australian coach-in-waiting. Now adding to the already long shadow he casts over Deans’s future is Jake White:  World Cup winning coach with South Africa in 2007 White has won many admirers in reviving the fortunes of the Brumbies, and their win over the Lions two weeks ago has catapulted him into the frame as potential successor to Deans. Series defeat to the Lions may well result in that succession taking place before the Wallabies face the All Blacks in this year’s first Bledisloe Cup clash in Sydney in August.

 

Deans had options for the ten position this week within the squad he picked, without even touching the question of whether or not Quade Cooper should be brought back in from the cold. Cooper’s comments about a toxic atmosphere in the Wallabies’ camp last year were incendiary, and I expect many fans do not begrudge Deans excluding him. The “defensive frailty” used to justify his omission is more a flag of convenience than the true reason he is playing no part in these games. Defeat on Saturday, surrender of the series, and I doubt they will be so forgiving.

 

Christian Leali’ifano, fit again after his first minute concussion last week, has played many more Super Rugby games in the pivotal ten position than O’Connor. Kurtley Beale was instrumental in Australia coming back into the game in Brisbane, and were it not for his wrong choice of footwear winning it. He took over the reins when he came off the bench and gave his side more structure in attack, suggesting he would be a safer pair of hands for the fly half berth. O’Connor is an instinctive rugby player, a rapier in attack and capable of stopping opponents twice his size in defence, and there is no question he should be in the side. These attributes are better suited to wing or full back. These attributes are not in question. The question mark, even more pronounced now than on the eve of the first test, is whether he has the discipline and control to be the playmaker.

 

Will Genia has justifiably received glowing praise all week for his performance at the weekend. Most telling are the repeated comments that he played at “nine and a half”, not only doing his own job as scrum half but also managing his three-quarters and orchestrating Australia’s attack. The Lions have made a change at six for the second test, sacrificing the more dynamic talents of Tom Croft for the destructive spoiler Dan Lydiate. This move is a nod to Genia’s brilliance, but also suggests that the Lions believe if they can shut him down they snuff out the Wallabies’ offensive threat. Genia must be able to concentrate on his own game and rely on the man outside him to control the backline.

 

Lions coach Warren Gatland has mixed things up. He has eschewed the don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken adage in favour of a more proactive approach. Scrum half Mike Phillips, selected for the first test for his experience and size, has been replaced by the smaller but quicker Ben Youngs. And despite his scintillating try in Brisbane, winger Alex Cuthbert gives way to Tommy Bowe, who was in electric form in early tour games before injury intervened. Along with Lydiate’s introduction these changes confirm Gatland’s assertion before the tour that nobody in the squad was assured of a test place and that he would pick players based on form and circumstance, as opposed to history or seniority. Defeat, however narrow it was, gave Deans license to ring the changes. He has stuck with the team, and their positional deployment, where fitness allowed it. Australia’s changes are all enforced. Let us hope for the sake of the Wallabies and for Deans that by sticking to his guns on Saturday night he hits the target. If not, they may be the last shots he fires in anger as coach of Australia.

 

This week Cricket Australia has deemed it necessary to change their coach. The dramatic events of the last 48 hours in Canberra see the very country itself with a new, or should we say recycled, man in charge. Robbie Deans beware – the current mood in Australia is for change at the top.


 

 

 

Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says:

    Huge game tomorrow night. Deans has had a pretty good crack at the job and a change of coach might free up some of the players. Would like to see McKenzie given a chance, always like the way his Queensland Reds team plays. And he would no doubt play Quade Cooper.

  2. Tim Ladhams says:

    Bang on Luke. I cannot help but think that the players are second-guessing what is expected of them under Deans, and are therefore not fully expressing themselves. Australia has a reputation around the world for a culture of running rugby. Despite the importance of defence and structure in the modern game the Reds proved under McKenzie that an expansive gameplan can succeed.

    Deans has been a great servant to the game, but I don’t feel he has really fired up the players or fans in his adopted home. Notwithstanding all that, victory tonight and next weekend in Sydney would make things look very different. As Mickey Arthur and Julia Gillard can attest, results are everything in this day and age….

  3. Simon Davies says:

    Gatland has made some bold decisions that have concerned many self-appointed “rugby gurus”. The decision not to include a specialist second row forward in the replacements leaves the Lions very vulnerable to injury in this area. Will Croft or Heaslip move in to “the engine room” if a second row injury strikes??? Some report that Dan Lydiate has been practising scrummaging as a second row.

    The Lions starting with Vunipola, the third or even fourth choice loosehead prop, will make the Lions extremely vulnerable in the scrum should there be an early injury to the selected second rows Parling or Jones. Many believe that a shift in the control of the scrum nearly cost the Lions the first test. Time will tell whether Gatland’s decision is inspirational or madness!

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