Matt Gitaeu recalls when standards started slipping
November 22, 2013
Matt Giteau last played Test rugby in the Wallabies side defeated by Samoa in 2011 © Getty Images
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Recalibration: it's the Wallabies' word of a tense week. The hurt, embarrassment, drama and danger of a major divide being created through coach Ewen McKenzie's punishment on six late-night drinkers is a result of the desire, and of the need, to recalibrate the team's cultural standards.
McKenzie has used the word numerous times in front of the cameras and tape recorders in Edinburgh, and also when they've been turned off. Even his players are now using the word.
McKenzie's decision to suspend six players and warn nine others for enjoying a big night in Dublin last week appeared to some pundits heavy-handed, especially when no complaints were made and the Wallabies then thumped Ireland 32-15; but he has chosen to shift their standards markedly, as recognised by ESPNscrum's Greg Growden in his column headlined Bravo, Ewen McKenzie.
The Wallabies have been a fading force since upsetting the All Blacks to win the 2011 Tri Nations; they are yet to win another Bledisloe Cup Test after underachieving at the Rugby World Cup 2011, and they are now ranked No.4 in the world. And McKenzie's doing all he can to turn them around to be genuine contenders for Rugby World Cup 2015.
Former Wallabies playmaker Matt Giteau, now plying his trade for French glamour club Toulon, was taken aback by McKenzie's stand, describing from afar the Dublin episode in which some of the 15 night owls stayed out until 4am as a typical midweek tour blow-out over the course of his 92-Test career.
His view of the punishment boils down to how clear McKenzie's guidelines for the night were, especially considering the ensuing four-tries-to-nil performance.
"If there was nothing else said beforehand then it was a harsh stance," Giteau says. "In previous tours, it wouldn't have mattered. You could go out midweek for a few drinks knowing the Wednesday is a day off and then you refocus going into the Test match and perform at a good level.
"Back in Eddie Jones' days, he would have asked 'who was out past this time?' And then he would have put the heat on. He said 'okay if you want to put yourself under pressure you have to perform'. Which is fine. If you don't play well then you have no excuses.
"Ewen is in there to put the Wallabies in the right direction, but there's a cultural change he wants to bring as well. It's a pretty big call he's made."
Giteau is credentialled to judge.
He started at the end of Australia's last golden era under Jones, in 2002; he was the Wallabies' pin-up boy under John Connolly; and then he gradually fell from grace under Robbie Deans. Giteau's Test career hit the skids just before Rugby World Cup 2011, overlooked when Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor were promoted as the brash, young stars who would take Australia to the top of the world. But Cooper crashed and burned at the World Cup under the pressure of being the villain of New Zealand crowds, and Beale and O'Connor have since failed to pay back the trust and forgiving attitude of Deans by running off the rails. Following his own falling out with Deans, Giteau was a vocal supporter of McKenzie - whom he praised at the time as an empowering coach.
Looking back, he says he saw standards gradually slip as the Kiwi's old-school New Zealand approach - letting players drive team culture - allowed some to be a law unto themselves.
"I certainly felt for a long time, even 2010, that the standards were slipping," Giteau said. "And I think the culture itself, there were rules made for some but not for everyone. I felt the inconsistencies there certainly created a problem within the group. So you can understand where Ewen is heading here. You just hope all the players are on board, there's no splinter groups, and that everyone is in it together.
"He's got a proven history. Look at where the Reds were to where he took them [perennial cellar-dwellers in 2009 to Super Rugby champions in 2011]. I feel the Wallabies as well are starting to build as well."
Giteau points to Cooper's transformation in the past two months as how McKenzie "understands players".
"Quade is a clear example," Giteau said. "You look at how well and how confident he performs, and how comfortable Quade is playing under Ewen. That makes a big difference. There's certain coaches where you have that level of comfort where you really enjoy playing under them because of the respect you have for the coach; and you work harder for them and you don't even realise it."
Cooper is now Wallabies vice-captain, driving the standards with rookie skipper Ben Mowen and a host of other emerging players such as Christian Leali'ifano, Matt Toomua and Israel Folau. And Mowen and Folau were the only players in a dinner group of eight who didn't kick on in Dublin.
With 23 Tests to play before Rugby World Cup 2015 in England, the success of McKenzie's hard-line stance will clearly be shown by results.
"The consistency of performance is what that is going to reflect the most," Giteau said. "The thing for me is if you have a good core leadership group all working together and not undermining each other ... that makes a big thing."
Giteau said the leadership core set the tone, as it did when he entered the Wallabies squad at 20 with the likes of George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Toutai Kefu, Daniel Herbert and Matt Burke as leaders.
"If George Gregan would throw you the ball and you dropped it, he would just show you those eyes," Giteau said. "That's the sort of culture I'm talking about. It wasn't just George but all the senior players that would drive standards at training. But they also made sure you enjoyed yourself and would have fun."
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