EWEN McKenzie is not fond of the aura that has built up around the All Blacks. He understands it, stretching as it does across ”statistical, historical and emotional” realms to cosset the New Zealand Test team in crucial moments when a less successful side might collapse.
But it didn’t exist in his playing days. And as the new coach of the Wallabies, he wants to help his players tear it down. ”Aura is a mental aspect, you can allow it to dominate or you can focus on the other side of the situation, which says we get to play these guys more often than anyone else and in a way because of that we’re inoculated,” he says. ”That exposure should build confidence, not the other way around.”
It has been one year, 10 months and 16 days since the Wallabies last beat the All Blacks, which wouldn’t be so bad had that 2011 victory at Fortress Suncorp not been just the third in 14 encounters. Almost two years later the ledger has blown out to 18 Test match showdowns, with three more losses and one, gutsy draw skewing it further in favour of the Kiwis.
The Bledisloe Cup has not spent more than a few nights on Australian soil in 11 years. Not even a former All Blacks assistant, who had coached the Crusaders-bred nucleus of the side to record-breaking Super Rugby success and intimately knew its strengths and vulnerabilities, could help Australia break the hoodoo.
Enter McKenzie, whose first task is to produce where Robbie Deans could not. August 17, the opening match of the Rugby Championship and 2013 Bledisloe Cup series, looms on the horizon. ”It’s not easy,” he says when asked to map out how New Zealand can be beaten. ”Historically we’ve got a one-in-three record and we’ve probably been better than that at times and also worse. Even when we’ve been good we’ve only been able to knock them off by a point here or a point there, so that says you’ve got to have everything going right – the right team, the right tactics, and the right motivation – and even then it’s going to be tough. But that’s just the way it is.”
There was a time when Australia seemed to have all the above. In 1991, when a Wallabies side boasting David Campese, Tim Horan and Michael Lynagh saw off the All Blacks by 10 points to advance to the World Cup final. A year later, in a series often acknowledged as Australia’s best Bledisloe performance ever, the Wallabies won two Tests to one.
A decade on, Australia notched a fifth straight series win – and its last – with a two-point fightback win in Sydney. McKenzie was the Wallabies’ starting tighthead prop in all of those early-’90s encounters and part of the coaching staff in the early noughties.
He sees the All Blacks team as 15 men taking the field – well-drilled men, with an intimidating collective spirit driving their performances, but by no means demigods. ”I’m probably a little bit skewed because I played against them 14 or 15 times and ended up with a 45 per cent [winning] record, which is probably not bad by world standards,” he says.
”But in the end I have a different perspective on them and I will be trying to impart that on the players.”
Steve Hansen appears to be in renovation mode at the NZRU, armpit-deep in the mid-World Cup cycle of rejuvenating playing stocks and managing ageing stars, including Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. ”They’ve got guys on long rest periods so there’s some preservation work going on there, but they’ve also got new guys coming into the team for rebuilding purposes,” McKenzie says. ”That means they’ll be going out there and playing with all the statistical, historical and emotional aura that goes alongside being an All Black, and that exists every time they play.”
McKenzie’s record as coach at the Reds against New Zealand provinces, particularly when set against the wider backdrop of a stronger Australian conference this year, bodes well for building belief for the upcoming series.
He knows he has little time to get the building blocks right. But he also knows that regime change affords him one clear opportunity. ”The tactical approach we take will vary from week to week depending on the players that they use, so that will be part of the process, getting an idea of where they are going with their selections,” he says.
”But at this point in time, what do they know about us? They know we’ve changed the coach and that it will be a bit different, but that’s all they know. So in terms of their preparation at least we can get on with it and keep some level of subterfuge around where we’re going and how we might go about it.”
McKenzie on the Wallabies’ scrum …
”I look at it across time. Being an old front-rower myself I’ve been involved in games where we came out second-best at scrum time. Scrummaging is technical, it’s tactical, it’s mental. In the second Test we put the Lions under a fair bit of pressure. People might have blamed [prop Mako] Vunipola and they came back into the game, but there was a lot of pressure. You can’t look at one-off games. It mightn’t have been helpful and it mightn’t have helped in the result but it doesn’t mean the scrum’s bad every week. I’m not too stressed about it, the set piece is a genuine contest and will always be a battle. I’ve got to understand how much has been put into that space and whether we can do more, but we’ve got some good, interesting players out there and some we haven’t seen enough of yet, so that will all be part of the journey.”
The Wallabies’ depth …
”We’ve got more teams than we ever had so we have more depth than we’ve ever had. You never know who’s going to pop up. Look at [debutant] Jesse Mogg, he popped up on the field and did a really good job on all the fundamentals. Sometimes there’s people out there itching for an opportunity, you put them in the right environment and they go better.”
The spring tour …
”There are some really interesting young players, and that tour might afford the opportunity to get to know a few of them and see where they’re up to, whether if you put two years’ worth of work into them whether they’re going to be really good for us come World Cup time.”
The 2015 World Cup …
”I’m not worried about it at all. If we can perform well over the next couple of years, the World Cup will roll out the back of that. I’m not going to get obsessed about it now, I’m obsessed about the first game on August 17. I can guarantee if you can get a couple of the right wins at the right time you can get some serious momentum.”
”I’m not close enough to the squad to work out where they’re at exactly, yet. But … when you’re investing in the players you have to understand where they sit in the big moments. For me winning and losing are both habits so if you can get the winning habit going then confidence will flow from that and players will get better at handling the big moments.”
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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.