• Arise, Sir Robbie

    Arise, Sir Robbie!

    The New Zealand Rugby Union has attracted its fair share of criticism over the years, so we should not begrudge it the plaudits for devising and then implementing a strategy that has been brilliantly successful.

    The outcome of that strategy is there for all to see – nine straight wins against the Wallabies, the Bledisloe Cup in New Zealand hands for an eighth straight year, and the All Blacks encouraged by those successes to approach next year’s World Cup with justifiable confidence and the knowledge that one of their most dangerous rivals is firmly on the back foot.

    While the results may be obvious, the strategy that produced them is not well understood, and nor should it be. Indeed, secrecy and subterfuge were the essential keys to success; but those who devised the scheme could never have foreseen that the secret could have been maintained for so long. It is only now, when the penny is about to drop, that the true story can be told.

    That story began in the immediate aftermath of the terrible disappointment of New Zealand’s failure in the 2007 World Cup in France. Within a week of the end of that tournament, New Zealand’s rugby bosses held a crisis meeting in secret to see what could be rescued from the wreckage and what course could be followed to ensure the right result next time.

    The first issue for resolution was coaching. The team led by Graham Henry was widely seen to have failed, and there was considerable pressure to move quickly to appoint a new coach. The call for a new appointment was of course greatly strengthened by the evident availability of a well-qualified replacement.

    The strategists were initially tempted to make a clean break and start the 2011 World Cup campaign with a fresh coaching team. There was of course some reluctance to ditch Graham Henry and his colleagues, whose record – apart from the 2007 defeat to France – had been impressive. There was a strong belief that they might still deliver the World Cup victory that the country craved.

    It was at this point, as they wrestled with the complexities of what to do next, that the outline of a daring plan was conceived. It is not clear who first had the idea – an idea so outrageous that it was at first dismissed out of hand.

    But, as the rugby bosses thought more about the plight they were in, the conviction grew that something extraordinary was needed, and that there was a chance – a slim chance – that the more unthinkable the plan, the better the chance of success.

    They realised that the first task would be to hoodwink the man whom many regard as the sharpest operator in rugby – the Australian rugby supremo, John O’Neill, the man who singlehandedly out-manoeuvred the NZRU and walked away with sole rights to the 2003 Rugby World Cup tournament. If they could suck him in to the plan, the rest would become so much easier.

    What was needed, of course, was the right man for the job. And, as luck would have it, the answer was at hand. The very man whose credentials made him a real contender for the All Blacks coaching role, and whose candidature accordingly created a real dilemma for the NZRU, was the one person who might have a chance of pulling off the coup.

    So, a top-level deputation was sent to Christchurch. They talked far into the night. There was, of course, an initial disbelief and outright rejection, then a reluctant consideration of the chances of success, and finally – in the early hours – a simple handshake. The deal was done.

    The rest of course is history. The initial result – a Wallaby win – was agreed upon as the necessary confirmation that the deal would stick. The original expectation was that the plot would be uncovered after five or six Wallaby defeats. Nine All Black victories on the trot, and an unshakeable grip on the Bledisloe Cup, have exceeded all expectations.

    But, it now seems inevitable that, with his keen eye for a conspiracy, Peter de Villiers will bust the plot wide open. And even John O’Neill’s credulity has its limits. By the time he is brought face to face with reality, however, the damage will be irretrievable – at least on any time line that culminates with next year’s World Cup.

    Robbie Deans, finally unmasked, will return home a hero.

    Bryan Gould

    9 August 2010