THERE has been a fierce debate this week about the good rucking Richie McCaw has given his former coach, Robbie Deans, in his rugbiography The Open Side. McCaw revealed that in 2007, after New Zealand's failed Rugby World Cup campaign, he backed Graham "Ted" Henry to continue as coach of the All Blacks over Deans. And the reason for this support: "Robbie doesn't appear to want to be challenged by his assistants and won't allow the kind of full-on debate that Ted encourages with Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen."
It's history now that Henry went on to coach the All Blacks to victory in last year's World Cup. Deans coached the Wallabies to third place. Does this mean that Henry's collaborative system is superior to Deans's one man-band system? I don't think so.
The much-praised (by McCaw especially) collaborative system of coaching produced a tremendous triumph last year. But it has to be remembered it also produced the worst World Cup result ever by the All Blacks, in 2007, when France booted them out in the quarter-final. Throughout this tournament, the coaching group could not decide on the strongest side. They played a different team every match. Jake White, a one man-band coach, fielded virtually the same Springboks side throughout the tournament and won the Webb Ellis Cup. Moreover, the All Blacks held endless meetings, which, says the pragmatic Jerry Collins, bored the players senseless. There was too much sizzle in the preparation and not enough steak.
McCaw notes in his book, for instance, that the All Blacks did not have a drop-goal play in their game plan for the tournament. Yet the tournaments in 1995 and 2003 were decided in extra time by a successful field goal. And in the losing match against France the All Blacks had 73 per cent of territory and numerous opportunities to kick the field goal that would have got them through to the semi-finals.
By last year's tournament, Henry, Smith and Hansen had got the collaborative coaching system right. They worked out their best side and generally stuck with it. And the emphasis on developing the game plan was to give "clarity" to the players.
You don't need to have a cabal of coaches to achieve clarity of method for a team. A smart and dictatorial head coach can do this, too. Does anyone know who Vince Lombardi's assistant coaches were? What about Craig Bellamy's, Des Hasler's or Wayne Bennett's? The most successful Wallabies coach, with a 76 per cent winning record, was Rod Macqueen. Who were his assistants? Macqueen was a one-man band.
By way of contrast, during the Wallabies' failed World Cup campaign in 1995, when the team was booted out in the quarter-finals, the coach, Bob Dwyer, was accused of having too many assistants helping him out. Dwyer had won the World Cup in 1991 with a minimal coaching staff. Clive Woodward was a one man-band coach when he won the 2003 World Cup. But his 2005 British and Irish Lions were defeated easily in every Test by the All Blacks when he was supported by a contingent of assistants. Henry's collaborative coaching with the Pumas in this season's Rugby Championship could hardly be deemed to be a success.
McCaw reveals that he told the chief executive of the NZRU, Steve Tew, he could work with Deans as the All Blacks coach but would prefer Henry to stay on. Who is to say that a Deans-coached All Blacks wouldn't have won last year's cup?
The last Super Rugby title won by the Crusaders was in 2008, with Deans as the coach. Several players from that squad formed the heart of the All Blacks who won last year's cup. Deans won with Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read. And so did Henry. It is the coach who is important and not the system he uses to get the best out of his players.