Australian coach defends action over drinking session

Wallabies Head coach Ewen McKenzie. Picture: AP

Wallabies Head coach Ewen McKenzie. Picture: AP

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THE name sounds Scottish, he was educated at ‘Scotch College’ and, while there may be no actual known link to this land, his behaviour on arriving in Scotland this week would have had the blue-blood Calvinists nodding their approval.

And Ewen James Andrew McKenzie is nothing if not straightforward. In naming a remarkably strong side to take on Scotland, considering he is without 15 or so experienced Test performers, the Australia head coach explained his thinking in punishing 15 current tourists for drinking till nearly 4am in Dublin last Wednesday and allowing some the chance to atone at Murrayfield tomorrow.

McKenzie took over in August, after three years at the helm of the Queensland Reds, during which time they won their first Super Rugby title. He is famed for being a tough taskmaster and media portrayals tend to describe him as a serious, hard-talking, take-no-crap sort of guy, an image helped by the fact that he does not conform easily to stereotypes.

A hard-edged World Cup-winning tighthead, only the second Wallaby born and bred in the state of Victoria, he coached Australia alongside Rod Macqueen and Eddie Jones with the Wallabies in 2000-2003. He then steered the Waratahs to two Super Rugby finals in five years before quitting Australia to coach Stade Francais in Paris.

The Reds lured him back in 2009 and he hauled them from the bottom to the top of Super Rugby, winning it in 2011. There was talk last year of him being in for the Scotland and Ireland jobs, but he insists that despite meeting Scott Johnson he was not approached nor applied for the Murrayfield position.

In the Australian team hotel, the Radisson on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, he was as genial as they come and, reassuringly, while obviously eager to focus on tomorrow’s penultimate Test of the year, the coach shunned the modern ‘communications’ approach of shutting down on controversial suspensions of Adam Ashley-Cooper, Nick Cummins and forwards Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson and Liam Gill from this weekend’s match, and Paddy Ryan from next week’s final game against Wales. Instead, he explained why it was central to his plan to take Australia back to the top of world rugby after a tousy period under Robbie Deans littered with ill-discipline and poor results.

“Everyone motivates themselves differently, but none of that [punishment] was about trying to motivate them on the field,” he said. “It was about calibrating behaviour. Players at this level are there for a reason. They are good players, so the trick is to get them to reach their potential. You’re a good player, but can you be a great player? I stole the philosophy from Bob Dwyer [his former Wallaby coach] that if you want to compete at that level and be in a World Cup then you’ve got to have five world-class players in your team.

“The only way to get that is to get them in the right environment, so we have been challenging the players, and I think we’ve got more out of them than some people thought. But this is a journey for the team, and individuals, and you’ve got to sacrifice things to fulfil your potential.

“We’ve all got to be mature about this and I’ve got to lead the way on it because you can’t just keep rolling on with it, but I didn’t have any pre-disposed plans at all. I came in at pretty short notice with the staff that were there and picked a squad that was pretty much the same as before, and we set a course. But every team has a different way of functioning, different to a provincial team and different to when I coached before and played before.

“So you turn over stones and have a look and see what you find there. I’m that kind of guy, who believes the devil is in the detail, always, so I’m forensic in lots of areas. It’s not just one thing you do and then it’s all alright on the night. There’s always a re-calibration of things and you have moments as you go along, but from all that good things will start to happen and people will start to really enjoy themselves.

“I said when I first came in that there’s actually no impediment to any team having a world-class culture. There is nothing the All Blacks can do about us having a world-class culture because the culture is created from within. The only impediment is going to be yourselves as a group. We can have a world-class culture because nobody can stop you if you’re determined enough and you want it enough, and that’s what I want.”

Pretty clear then. The players will learn the hard way as those sitting out this weekend, or next in the case of Paddy Ryan, will each lose around £7,750 in match payment, and for some the ban will mean they fall short of the threshold of Tests per year that triggers a bonus. McKenzie deliberately avoided their contracts so that such issues would not cloud his decision on punishments.

“Everyone has thresholds,” he said. “My contract has them. So this isn’t about thresholds. This is about performance. This is about turning up and doing the best possible things for the Wallabies. What happened in the amateur years is from a bygone age. Right now there are a lot of high-performance staff attached to the Wallabies to get the best possible performance out of them and what happened last Tuesday night worked against that outcome. There was only one reason we were in Dublin – to play a Test against Ireland.”

Arguably, however, McKenzie has more to lose. Australian sport has high expectations and while he has been setting down an admirable path, the Wallabies are staring at their worst year of results in history. Having lost 2-1 to the British and Irish Lions, failed to beat either New Zealand or South Africa and gone down to England at Twickenham, they are now 
just one defeat away from an Australian team record for the most number of defeats in a calendar year.

But there is a lot to admire about McKenzie, and Australians cannot dispute the fact that change was vital after a series of bust-ups and alcohol-fuelled indiscretions. And, while quick to praise Scotland and coach Scott Johnson, and remind all of the fact that Australia are 2-0 down in recent meetings, the new man remains confident that the team named yesterday has the quality to beat Scotland tomorrow evening. And no wonder. There is nothing lightweight about a Wallaby pack that has 300 caps between them, and among the least experienced are arguably the best in flanker Michael Hooper and skipper Ben Mowen. They may be weaker than the Springboks up front – who isn’t? – but they remain a tight-knit, experienced group of international performers with more rugby in their locker, as the Aussies might say, than most of the home pack.

The back division has arguably the best half-back pairing in world rugby in Will Genia and Quade Cooper, because they are brilliant talents at their best and play together for club 
and country so know each other inside out.

Mike Harris may owe his return to the suspensions of others, but the clever Kiwi is Cooper’s inside centre at the Reds, while Christian Leali’ifano is one of the world-class players McKenzie is looking for, and so while outside centre is relatively new to him – and his defence should be tested by Scotland – his skills with ball in hand and on foot mark him out as a genuine threat.

The back three possesses one of the world’s leading all-round players in Israel Folau, whose rugby league and Aussie Rules background is wonderfully evident in the athletic way he plays union, and, like the back rows, while Brumbies wing 
Joe Tomane (eight caps) and Reds youngster Chris Feauai-Sautia are relative newcomers they too have skills and pace to burn.

“There are one or two there who maybe haven’t played so much, but they are here for a reason,” he said. “They have been selected for the country because we think they are good enough.”

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