Job in the bag, now new coach must win on field

In the aftermath of the Wallabies’ smashing defeat by the British and Irish Lions in the deciding Test of the series, the ARU was consumed with this fearful question: how to sell tickets for the first Bledisloe Cup Test at ANZ Stadium on August 17?
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The circuit-breaker was the ruthless sacking of coach Robbie Deans and the appointment of Ewen McKenzie, the successful coach of the Queensland Reds. ”I’ll be picking a team that I think could beat the All Blacks and I’m really looking forward to that task, actually,” he said at his first media conference as Wallabies coach. This ”game-on approach to the All Blacks should ensure a big crowd.

The Wallabies under Deans won 58 per cent of their 74 Tests. Against the Springboks, the Deans Wallabies won nine out of 14 Tests, including in 2010 their first at altitude in Bloemfontein since 1963. Against France, they won five out of six Tests: against Wales, eight out of nine Tests: and against England, four out of six Tests. By any reckoning these are impressive results. Against all nations other than New Zealand, the Deans Wallabies won 71 per cent of their Tests. This is getting towards Rod Macqueen territory as a success rate for a Wallabies coach.

But only three Tests in 18 were won against the All Blacks. And one of those victories was in Deans’ first Wallabies-All Blacks Test in 2008. It was no help to his cause that in the previous four years, from 2003 to 2007, the Wallabies played the All Blacks 11 times for only two wins. From the time he took up his coaching duties, Deans, a former All Black, was subjected to a hostility based on his New Zealand nationality.

In recent times, especially since McKenzie threw his hat into the ring as a potential Wallabies coach earlier this year, prominent Queensland rugby figures (including Greg Martin and his inane ”Trojan horse” accusations against Deans) and the influential Mosman set of rugby powerbrokers ruthlessly undermined Deans. This destabilisation campaign was so successful ARU chief Bill Pulver has admitted that even if the Wallabies had won the series against the Lions Deans was finished anyway.

Despite all his politicking, McKenzie comes to the Wallabies job with the goodwill of the rugby community. He is an Australian, which is an important consideration given the xenophobia shown against Deans. Imagine what Martin and others might have said if a Jake White-coached Wallabies side lost consistently to the Springboks?

McKenzie, too, has promised the Wallabies will play more expansively, more in the traditional Wallabies style, than they did under Deans. He points to the way the Reds have played as an example of how this style is achievable, and its results. Some critics have pointed out, though, that the Waratahs under his coaching played boring rugby, a reason why the franchise sacked him. But there is no doubt the Reds under McKenzie have been crowd-pleasers and winners, a terrific combination.

He has also promised a renewed focus on team discipline. Again this will be welcomed. The behaviour of James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale in staying out until 4am on the Thursday before the second Lions Test shocked rugby people (including their teammates). Respected rugby people told me they wanted the two sacked from the Wallabies squad immediately.

This is easier promised than done. McKenzie’s handling of bad boy behaviour by Digby Ioane, for instance, has not matched his tough rhetoric. Deans’ Wallabies had a noticeable loading of Waratahs players, even when that team was performing poorly. The Wallabies side under McKenzie is certain to have more Reds players in it. The playmaker will be Quade Cooper, a Deans reject on playing and behavioural grounds.

And so to Saturday night at ANZ Stadium, when the Waratahs play the Reds in an important match for the Queensland side’s finals ranking. Can Cooper and the Reds provide the sort of winning performance that foreshadows a similar result against the All Blacks?

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.