Wallabies rebuild on Ewen McKenzie's mind

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 20/07/2013
Ewan McKenzie
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
DRIVEN TO SUCCEED: Ewen McKenzie says he's spent a lot of time thinking about how to beat the All Blacks.

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As he glanced out of a hotel window on Hereford Street yesterday, Ewen McKenzie, a town planner, discussed what the future might hold.

Post-earthquake Christchurch means sections of the inner-city are a tangle of steel and concrete and the Queensland Reds, who play the Crusaders at AMI Stadium tonight, have spent the last two nights living inside the old red zone.

For some of the squad it may have been a depressing sight but McKenzie's brain appeared to be whirring as he pondered the possibilities.

The Reds director of coaching wanted to know how big the inner-city high rises could be, talked about wind tunnels and building designs for sunlight and seemed impressed by the container mall on Cashel Street.

Once his business with the Reds is done – it could be as soon as tonight if the Crusaders get their way – McKenzie must start a reconstruction job of a different kind.

As the new Wallabies boss, he was named as former Crusaders coach Robbie Deans' successor soon after the Aussies were beaten 2-1 by the British and Irish Lions in their recent series, he will be pitched into the task of trying to roll the All Blacks in Sydney on August 17.

Deans' record since he replaced John Connolly in 2008 was far from modest.

But his inability to win back the Bledisloe Cup, the Wallabies failure to advance past the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal, some shockers against Scotland and the capitulation to the Lions eventually caught up with him.

Now the man nick-named "Link", a former Wallabies prop who has had prior coaching stints with Stade Francais and the Waratahs, and was involved in assistant roles with the Wallabies and the Brumbies, has finally got his chance to replace Deans.

And he knows the pressure to win back the Bledisloe Cup will be relentless.

"I am familiar with that territory. I have been there as a player and an assistant coach with the Wallabies," McKenzie acknowledged.

"That would be a great boost for Australian rugby if we can do that. Easily said, but we have to do it. The proof will be in the actions."

Unlike Deans, who was appointed Wallabies coach after he missed the All Blacks coaching job in late 2007 and was able to plan ahead while still coaching the Crusaders in 2008, McKenzie's time to prepare for the international window will be limited.

It is unlikely he would be dumped if he doesn't immediately record a string of victories but he will be desperate to ensure he is not swamped by the job.

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"I have thought about it for a long time to be honest. You can't help it when you have had the experience of playing against the All Blacks and then coaching, I have had a lot of game experiences there.

"It is such a big moment in rugby when those games come along. Now I get the opportunity to do act it out."

When Deans was dumped by Australian Rugby Union boss Bill Pulver the news was quickly leaked to the media and it soon became apparent that the latter was keen to look to the future even before the Lions arrived in Australia.

When the moment finally came for McKenzie to be appointed, he never doubted he had the skills.

"I had actually been asked to the job around eight years ago ... I didn't think I was ready for it, so I declined it. I suppose some people at the time thought that was odd but that's just the reality.

"When you do it, you want to do it when you think you can make your best contribution and I feel that time is now and I have got enough experience under my belt."

The biggest jewel in McKenzie's coaching crown is the Super Rugby title win in 2011 when the Reds beat the Crusaders in the final at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium.

He also guided the Waratahs to the finals in 2005 and 2008, falling to the Deans-coached Crusaders on both occasions at Lancaster Park.

Although Deans left Christchurch with a reputation for ruling with an iron-fist, he struggled to control several key players towards the end of his tenure. Backs James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale were sighted at a fast-food restaurant in the early hours during the Lions series.

Deans also fell out with Matt Giteau before the 2011 World Cup and never appeared to forgive Quade Cooper for labelling the Wallabies environment "toxic".

No-one would have celebrated McKenzie's appointment as Australian coach more than Cooper.

His name is expected to be one of the first scribbled on the Wallabies team sheet, where he will play outside his Reds team-mate and halfback Will Genia.

When asked about Cooper and his temperament in high-pressure matches, McKenzie banged-on about his Reds side not being a one-man band but in one sentence offered more positives about his game than were heard from Deans over several months.

"Everyone has got an opinion out there on Quade but the bottom line is we have had a lot of success as a team – we are well in the high 70 per cent win-loss side of things for the Reds when he is playing, so that's what you need.

"You need guys who facilitate that."

Genia said he attempted to call Deans after his sacking but couldn't reach the man who awarded him his first test cap for the 2009 test against the All Blacks at Eden Park.

"I tried giving him a call but he was obviously busy. I understand why he didn't answer but I sent him a message he he texted me back which was quite nice. I just wish him all the best and hope all is well with his coaching future."

Although he may receive a frosty reception from some pro-Deans fans tonight, McKenzie believed the fans, rarely regarded as the most genteel of supporters, will give him a fair go.

"You never get a friendly reception but I think Cantabrians are pretty respectful people rugby-wise and in the end I have got an opportunity. Circumstances have changed but neither he (Deans) nor I control the decision making there.

"We are just candidates for the job and luckily I got a chance to go forward."

- Fairfax Media

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