Disunited Australia in danger of taking their eye off the ball
Behind-the-scenes politics and public discontent with coach Deans overshadowing tour for host nation
IN some respects the Lions are the subplot to the drama that is bubbling just beneath the surface of Australian rugby.
For starters the Lions tour has yet to capture the imagination of the public, especially in Sydney where the final and possibly deciding Test will take place on July 6. You had to wade through 15 pages of rugby league, soccer and cricket in one of yesterday's newspapers before finding news of the Test series.
Rugby union is the poor relation to league in Sydney. The public simply don't seem to care that there is a Lions tour on, even in the week of the opening Test.
There have been signs of life coming from the local union die-hards who have been trying to drum up interest and support by criticising the Lions. But the attacks have been tame and very disjointed in comparison to those that rained down on the 2001 tourists, when public and the rugby community were as one.
The attempt by 'The Australian' newspaper to increase the pressure on the Lions by wheeling out former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer to label the tourists "cheats" because of how they play the game was not only tame but rather pathetic.
It also backfired when Lions coach Warren Gatland dismissed it by way of a derisory wave of his hand and a few words of sympathy about how the 1991 World Cup-winning coach was "being used" to garner a few headlines.
It was the best possible response from Gatland and further evidence of his maturity and growth. Not so long ago he'd have waded into the argument with both his size 12s and ignited a war of words which would have served no purpose other than giving the protagonists what they wanted.
It's as if even the usual suspects cannot muster the enthusiasm to launch a dedicated attack on the Lions. One Sunday paper regurgitated the Dwyer comments and resorted to snorting at the Lions' "endless complaints about their half-backs being hit late" during the game against the Waratahs on Saturday.
It was not overly surprising that neither they nor Fox Sports – who have the television rights – felt prop-forward Jeremy Tilse's dangerous and sustained forearm choke on Jonathan Sexton's throat, while the out-half was on the ground and not in a position to defend against it, merited a mention.
It is expected that the Australian cheerleading will heat up and the attacks will become more obvious as the Test match draws closer, but the political manoeuvring in the background is what is taking up so much energy and overshadowing the tour for the Australians.
While head coach Robbie Deans certainly has his supporters, especially at ARU level, there is a belief that plenty of the Wallaby supporters would sacrifice the Lions series in order to be rid of the Kiwi.
Deans has been coaching Australia since 2008 and it is believed that nothing short of a series victory over the Lions and Bledisloe Cup success – the annual clash with New Zealand – will be enough to see him remain on through to the end of the 2015 World Cup, which is his desired goal.
Deans (below) is respected as a coach – indeed there is a suggestion that the IRFU might have made a very tentative preliminary approach to him before finalising their shortlist of four candidates to succeed Declan Kidney – but as the first foreigner to coach Australia he is coming under increasing pressure.
That pressure was increased earlier in the season when Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie announced he was leaving the franchise at the end of the season in a move calculated to pressure the ARU into – privately at least – offering him some form of succession guarantee.
That manoeuvre found no support but it hasn't deterred him. His opinions on Quade Cooper – "I pick him every week and I will pick him every week" – in the build-up to the game between the Reds and the Lions was a swipe at Deans' decision to omit the mercurial out-half from the Wallaby set-up.
Unlike the Western Force, the Reds went all out to try to beat the Lions, which would have afforded McKenzie a very powerful bargaining chip if Australia do lose the series.
Brumbies coach Jake White has been less obvious in his posturing. He wants to return to coaching at international level and those close to him admit he has his heart set on succeeding Deans. The South African has so far refused to show his hand but, like McKenzie, sees a win over the Lions as a big bargaining chip.
"I don't know about jockeying behind the scenes," protested White this week. "I want to return to international coaching but first I want to finish what I have started with the Brumbies and get them back to winning ways.
"Ewen (McKenzie) has made his desires clear about coaching Australia and Robbie (Deans) wants to take Australia to the next World Cup. Where that leaves us all I don't know."
White has already guided the Brumbies to the Australian Conference for 2013 – they top the table of the five Australian Super 15 sides – and qualified for the Super 15 finals for the first time in nine years.
The Brumbies are Australia's most successful Super 15 side with two titles to their credit.
A third win under White's charge might well make the South African an irresistible attraction for the ARU if the Wallabies lose the Lions Test series and/or the Bledisloe Cup.
In some regards the Lions are the pawns in the Australian melodrama, albeit hugely profitable ones as the AUS $15m the ARU are expected to glean from this series will wipe out their debts and put the organisation back in the black.
The summary assessment of what is going on is that the Australian rugby union fraternity is not united just now. Cooper suggested last year that the international team's training camp was "toxic".
Perhaps that was an overstatement fostered by his own treatment at the hands of the coach. Perhaps it reflected an organisation that is fragmented and at war within.
If so then the Lions could benefit. But you can be sure the pride and professionalism of the players in the international uniform next Saturday will mean the Lions would be unwise to assume that internal turmoil will translate into anything less than a full-blown, full-on contest in the upcoming series.