By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, July 9 (Reuters) – Ewen McKenzie’s role as head coach of Australia does not involve carrying around a big stick to whip an ill-disciplined and demoralised Wallabies team into shape, the former test prop said upon his appointment on Tuesday.
But with a clash against bitter rivals New Zealand just six weeks away, most rugby fans Down Under would care to disagree.
McKenzie, who takes over from the ousted Robbie Deans, inherits a side with morale near rock-bottom following Saturday’s record loss in the series-deciding test against the British and Irish Lions.
Local media have reported a rift between senior players and the coddled backline duo of James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, whose repeated disciplinary lapses under Deans steeled the ARU’s resolve to release the 53-year-old New Zealander.
The off-field problems, combined with a growing disenchantment for foreign coaches in the Australian sporting landscape, created a perfect storm to sweep the 48-year-old McKenzie to power.
McKenzie, who turned a moribund Queensland Reds franchise into a title-winning outfit, will be expected to work his magic at test level where his predecessor Deans, a five-times championship winner at provincial level, proved unable.
Australian Rugby Union boss Bill Pulver told reporters at McKenzie’s coronation on Tuesday that discipline would be a “big area” on which he and the bull-necked coach would focus.
The pair had already sat down to start drafting new behavioural principles, he added, following a string of off-field problems in recent months.
McKenzie offered wayward backs O’Connor and Beale, who undermined the Wallabies preparations with a number of discipline breaches during the Lions series, the hint of an olive branch.
“My intention is not to run around with a big stick all the time, my intention is to invest up-front, spend time understanding the players, understanding their total environment,” McKenzie told reporters on Tuesday, his thick-set frame filling out a grey suit.
However, the 48-year-old, a proud World Cup winner with the 1991 Wallabies, said the era of players living off their reputations was over.
“There is a role model aspect to it, there are young kids that lie awake at night dreaming about the opportunity,” he said.
“We don’t want to be frivolous about the opportunity … Certainly if people don’t respect it then we don’t want to be wasting any time. There are other people that are queuing up there to have a crack.”
McKenzie’s appointment will satisfy conservative voices in Australian rugby, who criticised the ARU for hiring a foreigner in Deans in 2007 and whinged throughout his tenure — an Australian record of 74 tests that yielded only one Tri-Nations title and a semi-final exit at the 2011 World Cup.
Like Deans, McKenzie brings a successful record at provincial level, international experience as a decorated test player with 51 caps and stints as assistant coach for the Wallabies from 2000-03.
The similarities all but end there, however, and the pair have rarely seen eye-to-eye.
Deans’s cagey and often cryptic observations at media appearances led some reporters to brand him ‘Yoda’ in a reference to the ‘Jedi Master’ in the Star Wars trilogy.
McKenzie has rarely been anything but direct, and has not hid his disdain for Deans’s selections, most notably with his recent blast at the New Zealander for not welcoming Reds and former Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper back into the fold.
Where Deans has been blamed, sometimes unfairly, for low-scoring and defensive efforts by the Wallabies, McKenzie has endeared himself to rugby powerbrokers by bringing big crowds to Brisbane’s Lang Park to watch the Reds’ free-flowing rugby.
Like Deans before him, McKenzie has been set the ambitious task of bringing New Zealand’s long domination of the trans-Tasman rivalry to an end and restoring the Wallabies to their glory days of the turn of the century.
Other trophies are on the wish-list, with the 2015 World Cup the ultimate prize.
McKenzie will not only be charged with winning, but doing it in style to bring disaffected fans back to a game that has increasingly struggled for relevance in Australia’s crowded sports market.
“Arguably the most important variable of all is that Ewen has the capability of coaching the way the Australian public wants to see the game played, which is smart, creative running rugby,” said Pulver, whose organisation has reported losses totalling nearly A$20 million in the past two years.
Still coaching Queensland in their tilt for a second Super Rugby title this year, McKenzie has no time to settle before Australia take on New Zealand in Sydney on Aug. 17.
A popular choice now, McKenzie would feel the honeymoon end abruptly with a big loss to the all-conquering All Blacks.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)