Robbie Deans' dilemma and the courage of Matt Hampson
Australia went into last week’s Test against the All Blacks talking about the start of a new era.
By the time the final whistle blew, we got the feeling it was more an ending. The end, that is, for Robbie Deans.
The Wallabies were atrocious in the Rugby Championship/Bledisloe Cop opener in Sydney and only New Zealand’s rustiness prevented the final nails from being hammered into the coach’s coffin.
But make no mistake, however close the scores were, the wolves are knocking on ‘Dingo’s’ door and surely only victory in Auckland on Saturday can save him.
It’s 10 years since the Wallabies last had their hands on the Bledisloe Cup. But having struck what many thought was coaching gold in the appointment of Deans in 2008 there was the assumption, at least in Australia, that they would have it back by now.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) couldn’t believe their luck when the architect of five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders fell into their lap after being rejected by his homeland.
But 13 losses (from 16 matches) against the Kiwis later, very little has changed at all for the Wallabies. Deans’ defeats always end in similar fashion: the Aussies bulldozed off the pitch by physically superior opposition. And therein lies his biggest failing - Australia’s Achilles heel before his arrival, underperforming forwards, continue to hold them back.
Although the backs did their best to take the heat off the men upfront with a display that can only be described as inept, the pack problems were all there last week: a weak scrum, lack of presence at the breakdown and too few rampaging ball runners to breach the gain line.
Home field advantage is so crucial in the Rugby Championship and coupled with the chance of catching the world champions off guard in the first game
of the series, the Wallabies should have produced better.
But from what was a faint hope last week, the phrase ‘lambs to the slaughter’ springs to mind when analysing their prospects for this weekend.
Australia haven’t won at Eden Park since 1986, are without their captain and best forward in David Pocock and are relying on Quade Cooper to steer them to victory. The same Quade Cooper who collapsed under an avalanche of vitriol from the Kiwi public during last year’s World Cup and who has played minimal rugby this year due to a serious knee injury.
You cannot blame Deans for throwing the erratic New Zealand-born fly-half in at the deep end. At his best Cooper is a match-winner. At his worst, well, the Aussies can’t sink any lower than they did in Sydney.
But it will take one of the most astonishing form reversals in recent memory to prevent the All Blacks from locking away the Bledisloe for another year and perhaps sealing Deans’ fate, even with Tests against South Africa and Argentina to come.
Deans has not been a disaster for Australia. They are No.2 in the rankings and in Cooper, Will Genia, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor he’s developed a stable of exciting young backs. But they’re stuck in a rut against the Kiwis and when you add in the stunning slips against Samoa, Scotland and the World Cup
loss to Ireland, it suggests it’s time for change.
And with Super 15-winning coach Ewen McKenzie waiting in the wings the ARU have a ready-made replacement. That McKenzie’s Australian will be seen by some Down Under as a step in the right direction but after reversing the fortunes of the Queensland Reds, who were a basketcase until he took over, he’s certainly earned his shot.
Could he do a better job than Deans? There’s a chance he could do worse but if the Wallabies go down on
Saturday, it won’t be long before we find out.
The words ‘courage’ and ‘brave’ are tossed around in sport all the time.
If a footballer puts himself in the way of a fierce piledriver from his opposite number, then he’s ‘brave’. If an athlete injures herself but makes it to the Olympics and gets to the final of her event then she’s ‘courageous’.
And in the banal world of sport’s commentary who are we to disagree with those descriptions? However, once you get beyond the trite and trivial sayings of pundits - most of whom get well paid to say the blatantly obvious (Alan Shearer, Denise Lewis etc, etc) - you realise such talk is ridiculous.
We say this because we’ve just finished reading ‘Engage - the Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson’. For those of you unaware, Hampson was a highly thought of prop playing for England rugby’s Under 21 side when he was paralysed from the neck down following an accident in scrummaging practise for the national side.
In one tragic moment his life - then promising a good professional career in the top flight and possibly even full England caps and all the things we all take for granted - was changed forever, aged only 20.
Waking up needing a ventilator to help him breathe, ‘Hambo’ had two choices: to make best of the cards that had been dealt out, or to let his new fate get the better of him.
Thankfully the fighting spirit never left him and Hampson, always up for a battle and a scrap, took on the new reality to become an inspiration for many.
His true bravery and courage has helped create a foundation which aims to inspire and support young people seriously injured through sport.
The real lesson we learnt from Hampson’s tale isn’t to do with the linguistic ineptitude and facileness of Shearer and Co. Rather, that at the end of the day sport is just sport. By all means take it seriously, go out to win and definitely enjoy playing, watching and debating it. But if you want to see true
courage and real bravery you may need to look beyond the pitch.
Anyone not agreeing with this message should read the book.