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New Zealand's greatest coaches to never coach the All Blacks

By Adam Julian
Scott Robertson observes the Crusaders pregame. Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images

It would be extraordinary if Scott Robertson were to miss out on the All Blacks head coaching role again. Everything Razor has touched has turned to gold. Three NPC championships and a 38-9 record with Canterbury was followed by a World Under 20 championship with New Zealand in 2015. Since 2017 he’s turned the Crusaders into an even bigger juggernaut than they were previously. A record six titles in a row are accompanied by a peerless 86 wins in 101 games.

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However, doubt remains on who will be Ian Foster’s successor. There are plenty of heavyweights that have missed out in the past. Some for political reasons, some in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here are five of the best New Zealand coaches to have never coached the All Blacks.

Charlie Saxton – The best of his playing years were interrupted by World War II. An All Black halfback in the 3-0 sweep of Australia in 1938 he would almost have certainly toured South Africa in 1939.

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Saxton rose to the rank of major in the 19th Armoured Regiment during the War and then captained and coached the famous 2nd NZEF “Kiwis” on their wonderfully successful 1945-46 tour of Britain and Europe.

On that tour the “Kiwis won 29 out of 33 games outsourcing opponents 605-185 and beating the full international sides of England, Wales, and France.

Returning to Dunedin, Saxton coached the Pirates club to three banners – in 1948, 1950 and 1952 and was an Otago selector and assistant coach with Vic Cavanagh during the great Otago Ranfurly Shield era which latest 18 defences from 1947 to 1950. He took on head coaching duties in 1950 and helped Otago beat the British and Irish Lions that year. In 1957 Otago won the Ranfurly Shield again.

In 1967 Saxton wrote the coaching booklet The ABC of Rugby, which had a print run of 70,000 copies. It introduced key coaching terms like the “Staircase backline” and the “Position, Possession, Pace” theory, a long-time trademark of the New Zealand game which encouraged attacking play.

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Saxton was manager of the 1967 All Blacks who were unbeaten in 17 games in the UK and France. Colin Meads remarked after Saxton passed in 2001. “When you got a barrage from Charlie, you knew you’d had one. It only happened once or twice on the whole tour, and that was because the guys held him in such respect. Whenever he spoke the guys listened.”

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Bill Freeman – When Bill Freeman coached Wellington from 1964 to 1970 the Lions scaled lofty heights, so it was a surprise in 1970 when he missed out on the All Blacks coaching job to his understudy and assistant Ivan Vodanovich. It was alleged Vodanovich was preferred on religious grounds.

In 1965 Freeman led Wellington to a 23-6 triumph over the Springboks, arguably their greatest-ever result.  A year later Wellington punished the British and Irish Lions 20-6 and won 19 out of 22 games in a euphoric season, including winning all four matches on a southern tour for the first time since 1930 and beating powerhouses Auckland and Taranaki twice each. Mick Williment, Graham Williams and Tom Lister were All Blacks and household names.

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Telling from 1976 to 1988 he was appointed by New Zealand Rugby as national coaching director, a professional role to coach largely amateur coaches at the time.

Ian Upston – A glorious reign with Petone in Wellington yielded 172 wins in 192 matches and eight Jubilee Cup successes in ten years. Inevitably Upston took on the Wellington role and guided the Lions to 1978 and 1981 NPC titles as well as winning the Ranfurly Shield in 1981. All Blacks like Stu Wilson, Bernie Fraser, Alan Hewson, and Murray Mexted always ensured the Lions were competitive and entertaining.

With 102 wins in 146 games, Upston has won more matches than any Wellington coach for at least the last five decades. Curiously he’d often leave Athletic Park during home games and pace up and down nearby Rintoul Street claiming the reaction of the crowd would provide clues as to the fortunes of his team.

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Maurice Trapp – When Trapp coached Auckland (with assistance from Sir Bryan Williams) from 1987 to 1991, Auckland was untouchable winning 86 out of 90 games – two of the losses when Auckland’s large All Black contingent was not available.

In those five years, Trapp’s side won all their 38 Ranfurly Shield defences, as part of Auckland’s record 61 successful defences between 1985 and 1993. Additionally, they extended their unbeaten run at Eden Park to 51 games and enjoyed an unbeaten streak of 46 games in a row between 1987 and 1989.

A lock he played 38 games for Auckland and had a long and successful career in financial services. Trapp was on the Board of the NZ Rugby Foundation and President of New Zealand Rugby from 2017 to 2019.

Robbie Deans – When Robbie Deans retired after playing 146 games and scoring 1641 points for Canterbury, the All Black fullback was already a legend in Christchurch. That reputation would be further enhanced when he coached Canterbury to the 1997 NPC title with Sir Steven Hansen, Canterbury’s first success since 1983.

From 2000 to 2008 Deans coach the Crusaders winning five Super Rugby titles and making another two finals. In 2002 the Crusaders went through the entire season unbeaten (13-0) and beat the Waratahs by a record score of 96-19. Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw were both rookies under Deans.

After 89 wins in 120 games as Crusaders coach, Deans was a contender to replace Sir Graham Henry after the All Blacks exit in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2007. Henry was retained so Deans headed to Australia. His tenure with the Wallabies wasn’t entirely successful with just 43 wins in 74 tests but he’s proven in Japan he hasn’t forgotten how to win leading the Wild Knights to five Japanese titles.

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