Former India cricket coach John Wright once memorably described coaching against his home nation New Zealand as like playing a brother in the backyard. The analogy was delivered to Wright’s friend Robbie Deans, who at the time was contemplating becoming the first foreign-born coach of the Australian rugby union team.
Dave Rennie has followed in his countryman’s footsteps by becoming Michael Cheika’s replacement as Wallabies coach, but it is perhaps indicative of how things have changed in the 11 years since Deans was appointed, that rather than eliciting disappointment from the powers that be at New Zealand Rugby, Rennie was instead offered the union’s congratulations.
That is somewhat ironic, given Rennie opted to take the job in front of him, rather than trying first to secure the still-vacant premier role in his homeland. Deans only became available after he was controversially overlooked for the All Blacks in the aftermath of the shock failure at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
What has changed since then? For starters, Australia are simply not as good. The Wallabies were sixth in the world rankings when Deans took over, but rated second for most of his time in charge, before gradually sliding after he left. They are now back in the same position as when he inherited them.
Although the Wallabies’ win earlier this year in Perth was their third over the All Blacks in the seven seasons since Deans left – tying the three he achieved through five years playing New Zealand – the contests are not typically as close now. The 36-0 romp in the return Bledisloe this year was more indicative of the current norm.
The All Blacks beat the Wallabies 14 times from 18 games during the Deans era, but six were by single digit margins, two by one point, with Australia’s average deficit through those games standing at 12.6 points. Fast forward and the average winning margin against the Wallabies teams coached by Ewen McKenzie and Michael Cheika blew out to 20.6 per win, with only three single-figure deficits among the 16 defeats through this time.
It is because of this history that anxiety levels in New Zealand over Rennie returning the Bledisloe Cup to Australia after 17 years are nowhere near as high as when Deans was recruited.
The instance of Kiwis coaching other provincial and national teams that play regularly against New Zealand sides is also far more numerous now. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in Australia. The Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs are coached by Brad Thorn and Rob Penney respectively, with Penney having succeeded fellow Kiwi Daryl Gibson.
Warren Gatland (Ireland) and Steve Hansen (Wales) did coach against New Zealand before Deans flew to Australia, but neither of those countries were considered a threat, and the two men’s results in those games reflected it.
Australia were different. While I was writing Deans’ book, Red, Black and Gold, in 2013, Crusaders and All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw confessed to me that he struggled with the concept of his Super rugby mentor coaching Australia, as had star Crusaders and All Black first-five-eighth Daniel Carter.
“We knew what a good coach he was,” McCaw said. “It was hard to stomach the idea of him coaching our traditional rival, and probably our greatest threat at that time.” McCaw was so unsettled, he resisted suggestions from the New Zealand hierarchy that Deans be removed from the Crusaders immediately, arguing that the longer he stayed in New Zealand, the less time he would have with the Wallabies to prepare for that year’s Tests. As it was, Deans guided the Crusaders to his fifth Super Rugby title and only met his new charges 10 days before their first game.
Carter struggled to understand why Deans had opted to take Australia but acknowledged while writing the foreword for the book that he had been thinking selfishly. “All I could think of was that, after all he had done to help me, it just didn’t seem right that he could help a team we would be playing against,” Carter said.
Rennie, who won Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013, is warmly regarded by his former players and staff. Even so, he didn’t have the same tide of public sentiment behind him when frozen out of the All Blacks coaching picture. This was, at least in part, due to the presence of the national “favourite” Wayne Smith at his side. Failure to land the title after he left contributed to a perception for some that Smith had been the key ingredient for those titles.
While he has since done a passable job in Glasgow, Rennie has not won the Pro 14 title in two attempts after inheriting a side that had won the tournament before he arrived. The Warriors have also failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals in the European Cup. Nor was he favourite to succeed Steve Hansen, with Ian Foster, Crusaders coach Scott Robertson and Japan coach Jamie Joseph all viewed as greater chances.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the personal animosity from key New Zealand figures towards Deans, and then Gatland during an unpleasant British & Irish Lions tour of his homeland two years ago, are not evident in the case of Rennie’s Wallabies appointment.
Some of those antagonists are now moving on and for now, Rennie is not a threat. There is no doubt Deans winning the World Cup or the Bledisloe Cup with the Wallabies, or Gatland beating the Hansen-coached All Blacks with the Lions, would have embarrassed senior figures at New Zealand Rugby headquaterters. And should Rennie achieve what they couldn’t, after having not been even tempted to try and claim the All Black job, there may be some egg on senior New Zealand rugby faces yet.