McKenzie on brink of Aussie rugby's holy grail
Ewen McKenzie took his Wallabies to the New South Wales' bush and back on a road trip before tonight's Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney - but can he navigate them through the next stage of their journey to the promised land, the quest for Australian rugby's equivalent of the holy grail?
This is the challenge McKenzie confronts for a second time at ANZ Stadium, 12 months practically to the night since his reign as head coach began with a grim reminder of what predecessor Robbie Deans confronted on a regular basis: an All Black side at the peak of their considerable powers.
McKenzie's tenure opened with a 18-point defeat, and the concession of almost a half century; seven days later in Wellington the margin was trimmed to 11 but the outcome was the same: New Zealand's hold on the Bledisloe Cup extended to 11 years.
Subsequent defeats to the Springboks in one of their second homes - Perth - and again in Cape Town ensured his transition from the Super Rugby title-winning Reds would be a difficult one, though the Australian Rugby Union recognised he had minimal preparation time once Deans departed after the British and Irish Lions series was lost 2-1.
The New Zealander's fate was evidently sealed regardless of whether the Wallabies won the deciding third test at tonight's venue because his brand of rugby did not suit the style-conscious ARU executive and board - despite the perseverance Deans showed in Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor.
In such a competitive football environment the ARU dictated it's premier team had to play expansive, entertaining rugby, where aesthetics were valued higher than attritional qualities.
McKenzie, a World Cup-winning prop in 1991, ended Queensland's wait for a Super Rugby title in 2011 by using a vibrant game plan based on the mercurial Cooper and at that time, the world's leading halfback, Will Genia.
Having bided his time before accepting the top job - he turned it down in 2005 when Eddie Jones was punted - McKenzie's success with the Reds saw him emerge as the logical successor to Deans, who only managed two more wins in 17 tests against over his homeland since a first-up victory in Sydney in 2008.
McKenzie is currently 0-3 against the world champions so he is not yet suffered to the extent Deans did, but although he is contracted through to next year's World Cup in England the NSW Waratahs' first Super Rugby title on August 2 promotes a possible alternative where none were apparent last year.
The Waratahs' last-minute 33-32 defeat of the Crusaders on August 2 was a double edged sword for McKenzie - a confidence boost for the Wallabies who take the field tonight, yet more pressure for their coach following the breakthrough masterminded by Michael Cheika.
Like McKenzie, Cheika advocates an enterprising game plan - the Waratahs scored the most tries and points this season - but that freedom of expression was also complemented by the tightest defence in the competition.
McKenzie, who has a 60% win record despite his team not having beat New Zealand, South Africa or England, will be anxious to strike the same balance in the Rugby Championship - particularly tonight where stopping the All Blacks bid for a record 18th straight win will boost confidence significantly.
The 49-year-old is a shrewd operator and has been careful to cultivate the Wallabies image as panache over pragmatism, like during the lead-up to a test McKenzie surely must win if Australia is to regain the Bledisloe in a three test series that includes Eden Park - a venue where they have lost 14 tests since a 22-9 victory in 1986.
''As much as our forward pack gets maligned I think we've been pretty good at getting continuity of possession and speed of ball for the backs to play.
''Our try-scoring ability in recent times is testament to that,'' he argued, noting the Wallabies racked up a dozen tries against French in June, either side of a dour 6-0 win in Melbourne - the first time they had held the Tricolores scoreless, an achievement marginalised by the grim spectacle.
Try production has certainly improved since the first five tests of his reign averaged just one per game - the rate is now 2.86 and McKenzie believes the Wallabies will showcase how much they have developed since last year's Rugby Championship, a tournament where they only managed to beat Argentina.
''It's different because we have a base game that everyone knows, respects and we know works.''
''If you go and look at the stats we have been very successful in scoring tries and making line breaks. In terms of attack at test level we have been pretty effective,'' he said.
Beale's selection ahead of the more conservative Bernard Foley - the source of the only pre-match antagonism when Steve Hansen hinted it was motivated by the utility's possible defection to league - emphasises the Wallabies intent to play an up tempo game.
For this test last year McKenzie was more circumspect when debuting Matt Toomua at pivot and leaving Cooper on the bench.
Now 'x-factor' is back in vogue though ironically the coach, and the ARU's hierarchy - who this weeks trimmed the value of penalty goals to two points in the new National Rugby Championship - will have no qualms celebrating should Foley replicate his Super Rugby final heroics and edge the Wallabies in front with 20 seconds remaining.