AUSTRALIA coach Robbie Deans has described Scotland wing Sean Maitland as a “bolter” in the British and Irish Lions squad, but admitted that he was surprised his former Crusaders player did not become an All Black.
Deans, a former New Zealand full-back, worked closely with Maitland in Canterbury before leaving to coach the Wallabies, and he stated that he was not surprised to see him perform well for Scotland in his first season of Test rugby.
“There is no doubt Sean is a bolter but he is a ‘point of difference’ player,” he said. “I know him well.
“We got him down from Waikato to the Crusaders and he was a point of difference to us. The last time we won [the Super Rugby title] in 2008 he made a difference. I was surprised to see him leave New Zealand to be honest because there is no doubt he is able to play at this level and he showed that in the Six Nations. He is also familiar with the conditions and a lot of our players.”
Intriguingly, there will be three New Zealand-born players in the Lions squad – as well as two South Africans, a Samoan, a Tongan and Israel-born Jamie Heaslip – at least one Kiwi, Quade Cooper, in the Wallabies side and both head coaches are from New Zealand for the first time in the series.
Deans shrugged off the Kiwi connection, insisting the series was purely about Australia and the British and Irish nations, and he is impressed by the strength of the Lions squad.
“The initial reaction is that there wasn’t a great deal of surprise,” he said. “We are pretty familiar with the playing group. In this situation there are always unlucky players when there are so many good players available.
“We saw Jonny [Wilkinson] play very well on the weekend and wondered whether he may come, and with Chris Robshaw you only have to go back to the start of the Six Nations, and then look at the eventuality that England were playing for the Grand Slam and could have won the Grand Slam.
“But there is no doubt that that final result [loss to Wales] must have had a big bearing on the nucleus of the touring group. You look back. After round one with the Welsh losing at home to Ireland and the English going so well, and they had a very good performance against the All Blacks, there is no doubt that that last result had a bearing.
“The other one from this side that stands out as being unlucky is [Rory] Best from Ireland. But it is a very strong squad, and a lot of these blokes are experienced touring with the Lions previously and that will stand them in good stead.”
Intriguingly, because of Wales’ late push for the Six Nations, and the fact that their coach Gatland is the Lions coach, there are no surprises that they have dominated the squad with 15 selections, but Deans must be smiling to himself as his side has run up a record of eight wins on the trot against Wales in recent years.
The reticent coach, inevitably, played that down, and was quick also to dismiss a suggestion from the Australian media that Gatland has named a one-dimensional squad full of “slabs of red meat” that will try to stifle the Wallabies with a power-game.
“Our games with Wales were very competitive fixtures that could have gone either way and they have added a significant amount of depth and quality to that nucleus,” he said.
“That last encounter [of the Six Nations] was such a convincing result at 30-3 that, from our perspective, it provided an insight into what’s coming: the nature of the game, the intensity, the pace of it. We look at that as the benchmark.
“I have no idea where that [slabs of meat comment] came from. We have a lot of respect for what’s coming. To suggest that [power] is all that they bring is nonsense. Both sides like to play. That has always been the nature of Lions series and this one will be no different. The critical question is, both sides will look to play in a way that suits them so how will the opposition cope with what they bring to the table?
“But this is the Wallabies against the Lions, and it will be a fantastic series. The last occasion they were here was in 2001 and you look at how the body types have changed since then, and that was gladiator-like. This one is going to be remarkable.”
As to the make-up of his squad, Deans will name 25 players on 19 May who will come out of the Super Rugby denouement and begin preparations in a June camp, and he is hoping that none of his Test squad will play for their provincial sides in the midweek matches. Six more players will be added to his squad on 11 June to step-up preparation for the first Test in Brisbane on Saturday, 22 June.
He has not had his problems to seek with leading flanker David Pocock out injured, and two of his best players, Cooper and Kurtley Beale, embroiled in discipline issues, while George Smith, a player who retired from Test rugby apparently unhappy with Deans, is now back from Japan pushing his case for inclusion again with the Brumbies.
Cooper is back in harness after walking out of the Wallaby camp and criticising Deans’ methods, while Beale returns for the Melbourne Rebels this week, after being banned for fighting with teammates on the team bus.
Deans said: “Kurtley has just been named on the bench for the Rebels and he has obviously convinced his peers and the coaching staff that he is in the right frame of mind. He has a long way to go but there is a fair amount of rugby between now and then. There is a possibility he could put himself in the frame, but there are a fair amount of players lining up to have a crack.
“Quade is back out there playing consistently which is great. He was injured post World Cup, had various operations and so it’s good to see him out there working hard, and he clearly wants to be involved. There was never an issue from my perspective. If Quade earns the right to represent Australia, he will have done that the right way and in doing that he will have earned the respect of his peers.
“We are in a better position than we were a year ago and everyone wants to play. This is the ultimate rugby experience for any rugby player and also a coach. The scarce nature of these events is what makes them so special.”