Compassion for his players is the secret to the Kiwi coach’s success, writes Rupert Guinness in Christchurch.
Robbie Deans is one of the world’s best coaches and widely known for putting his players first.
And the inspiration for him to take up such a career may have come from the compassion of late former Wallabies coach Bob Templeton.
During one of his early games playing for Canterbury against Queensland, Deans was concussed after being hammered by prop Stan Pilecki.
“Templeton came and visited me after the match, and I never forgot it. It’s one of the first times I realised what an impact you can have on the people around you in such a role,” Deans said last December when he announced he would become the next Wallabies coach after this year’s Super 14.
Deans’s belief that players should be treated fairly, in return for the 100 per cent commitment he today gets from the Crusaders, blossomed during his halcyon days as Canterbury’s star fullback – a 146-game stint from 1979 to 1990 that netted 1641 points.
Even when injury forced him to rethink his career and move from the family farm in Glenmark to Christchurch in the early ’80s (when rugby was still amateur), instead of thinking of himself he thought about how the sport could help players who may find themselves in his situation. In essence, what Deans saw in Templeton was in himself.
At the time of his injury, Deans still co-owned and worked on the farm – about a 90-minute drive north of Christchurch – with his younger brother Bruce, who, like Deans, is also a former All Black.
He would make the three-hour round trip to Christchurch three times a week for training and once more on game day. It was a hard life … working on the land by day, the long drives to Christchurch and back in the afternoon and night. And, yes, the training. But Deans never questioned it. He relished it.
“[It] was probably the core of my most exciting period in my provincial rugby,” Deans, 48, told the Herald.
But one day, while working out in the fields with his brother, Deans fell in a hole and ruptured his knee. Once the immediate pain subsided, he didn’t think the injury was serious and life continued. And he played, unaware of the damage until his knee literally collapsed in a game.
Deans recalls it as “a sign”, that if he wanted to play rugby seriously he could no longer live a full working life on the land and fulfil his playing ambitions. He relocated to Christchurch.
But, typically, as he began rehabilitation, Deans’s mind did not turn to his misery, but to what future awaited players like him and what could be done to help avert situations like the one he had experienced.
“I approached the union about catering for guys that did that amount of travel,” Deans recalled. “I could see it was going to be an issue [in the game] over time. People in my circumstances may not be able to do what we had done. So I approached the organisation. It was wasn’t well received.”
But his message was eventually heard by the Canterbury Rugby Football Union. One day at the end of 1982, he received in the mail a cheque from the union for the then princely sum of $125.
He would later discover that it was a union reimbursement for driving from Glenmark to Christchurch and back so often – he calculated the rate “was less than one cent” a kilometre.
Still, Deans says it “was a lot of money at the time”. And because he feared losing his amateur status as a rugby player, he “was anxious about banking it” until the union declared it was a legitimate payment.
Deans had reason to be wary. It was the second cheque he had received for his involvement in sport.
The first was $17.89 and came for his share of player money for appearing in a charity cricket game in Canterbury even though, “I didn’t bat, bowl or field. The game was washed out after lunch.” Deans never deposited the cheque into his bank account. As he explains: “In those days, people would go on a witch-hunt because it was all amateur.”
More than 25 years later, Deans is on the cusp of the biggest turning point in his career, where awaiting him as Wallabies coach will be an annual pay cheque reported to be worth more than $700,00.
However, while the number of figures on the cheque may have changed, his values are still the same.
He is a man who believes loyalty is absolute. He is inclusive of all who work with him. And he is committed to the ideal that while the goal is to win, the best can only be gained if playing is enjoyed.
Much as he did when playing with his brother for the first time with the Glenmark Rugby Club at the age of nine. “We did the scissors. They had never seen the scissors, and we scored and won 3-0 [when a try was worth three points],” Deans recalls with a beaming smile as if it were yesterday.
Much as he did when playing for Canterbury, and for the All Blacks with whom he earned five caps.
Deans’s values have driven the six-time Super champion Crusaders to four titles under his coaching, and are pushing them this year in what Deans calls their “13th Crusade”.
Can those values work with the Wallabies? With four years under Deans to come, you have to hope.Tweet