McKenzie's pre-spring cleanout could reap rewards
August 12, 2013
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie has ushered in new faces in an attempt to end their Bledisloe Cup drought (Getty) © Getty Images
Ewen McKenzie comprehends first-hand the value of a pre-spring cleanout.
It worked in ensuring the Wallabies won their first World Cup title in 1991, with McKenzie proudly anchoring the Australian scrum. And the now Wallabies coach believes it can be successful again as he attempts to overcome a hideous Trans Tasman inferiority complex that has to be eradicated if Australia are to have any chance of being Rugby Championship victors.
All new Test coaches want to put their personal tattoo on the team, and McKenzie has done that by including eight newcomers in his Rugby Championship squad, while taking the radical step of omitting his most experienced prop, Benn Robinson.
His aim is to find players who are not physically and emotionally scarred by being repeatedly mauled by the All Blacks monster. They're hard to find in Australian Rugby, as an endlessly long list of players have been tried to no avail over the past dry decade to somehow get the Cup back to Australian Rugby Union (ARU) HQ.
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In such dire circumstances, it's not surprising McKenzie has reverted to what has worked in the past. So when McKenzie named his squad, he specifically mentioned his former Test coach, Bob Dwyer.
In 1989, Dwyer had a similar dilemma. The Wallabies were off the pace. The touring British & Irish Lions had just bashed their forwards into submission, while the Wallabies had not been successful in their past four Bledisloe Cup fixtures. The Wallabies weren't exactly wimps, but still had little idea how to start a fight, complete one, or even defend themselves in one. They were clearly intimidated.
Players who had no reason to fear the All Blacks were required. Dwyer and his fellow Test selectors - John Bain and Bob Templeton - knew they had to go left-field.
They brought in a reserve-grade hooker, Phil Kearns, a prop, Tony Daly, who had no senior representative experience and an 18-year-old centre in Tim Horan who had just made the Queensland B team. Another babe - McKenzie - was considered but was ruled out through injury.
Australia lost that 1989 Auckland Test 24-12, but the groundwork had been set for more important goals. Within two years, these four youngsters were important cogs in getting the Webb Ellis trophy to Australia. Beating the All Blacks in the Dublin World Cup semi-final was critical, as were lead-up Bledisloe Cup victories in Wellington and Sydney. The All Blacks aura was no more.
Two decades on, and we are again two years out from a World Cup, but circumstances have changed. It is now nigh impossible to pick unknowns, due to a flood of representative matches. But if you look hard enough you can still find those who know nothing about staring at the ceiling in a losing Bledisloe Cup dressing room.
As McKenzie said: "Sometimes you need people that come in fresh who have never lost to the All Blacks and … you can build a different mindset around that. Bob Dwyer did the same thing. So you say: 'We'll go find some other people who don't have a history of being thereabouts.'"
In a bid to develop a positive mindset, something the Wallabies haven't experienced for some time, McKenzie is looking at the Brumbies combination of prop Scott Sio, centre Tevita Kuridrani, fly-half Matt Toomua, and utility forward Scott Fardy to enlighten during the tournament.
Sio is an inspired choice. He is easily the most impressive of the young Australian provincial props. The exclusion of Robinson was a surprise, but can be comprehended as Sio showed during the Super Rugby tournament he is a complete player, matching his fine scrummaging skills with creditable midfield work.
As McKenzie knows, if the Wallabies are to make an indent in the Rugby Championship it all revolves around their forward prowess. The Lions series loss did nothing to convince anyone the Wallabies pack and work at the breakdown was anything more than fair to middling. Their scrummaging was inconsistent - and for a time in the third Lions Test fell apart - while their ability to dominate at the tackle fluctuated. Sio and Fardy could make a difference there.
Big decisions McKenzie will have to make are who plays No.8, and whether he opts for Liam Gill ahead of Michael Hooper at openside flanker.
McKenzie also knows there is some uncertainty over what will occur out wide. He is scheduled to try Quade Cooper first up at No.10, but it would not surprise if Toomua is used as the team's chief playmaker later in the tournament.
While Cooper's every move will be scrutinised, and basically jeered by every New Zealander, Toomua may be required to bring back some decorum to the Wallabies midfield. Toomua showed during the Brumbies rise to the Super Rugby finals this year that he has developed into a mature midfielder.
The back three is also a hazy area. Everyone is still waiting to see if Jesse Mogg, the favourite for the No. 15 jersey, is the complete fullback. We know Mogg can boot the ball, with Brumbies coach Jake White turning him into a midfield-kicking machine. Mogg has shown glimpses he can attack with intelligence, but his ability to handle endless pressure is yet to be proven. He did falter in the final minutes of the Super Rugby final, so Adam Ashley-Cooper and James O'Connor could find themselves hovering in the last line.
In his opening weeks as Wallabies coach, McKenzie has made all the right statements. Whether this will develop into the Wallabies winning the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2002, and their first triumph in an expanded Rugby Championship remains unlikely.
They appear on a par with South Africa. Playing Argentina away will be a tough ask, and the All Blacks are on a higher level. So it could be another "thereabouts" season. It will at least be interesting and eventful because these are the only outcomes from McKenzie taking a fresh-mind, fresh-outlook approach.
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