New Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie can create history this weekend—the only thing stopping him is the All Blacks, who have held the Bledisloe Cup for a decade.
The Anzac national sides meet in Sydney on Saturday (Aug 17), for the first match of the four-nation Rugby Championship—the trans-Tasman trophy, the Bledisloe Cup, is contested concurrently.
Australia look to change mindset
“We’re 10 years without the Cup,” McKenzie said, summing up Australia’s position. He said “change” would be a feature of his early tenure.
Part of that change would come from new players, who did not carry the weight of recurring losses—if the team won, a new player’s win-record against the All Blacks would be 100 per cent.
“You can build a different mindset around that,” he said.
“I always say: ‘If you keep doing the same thing you’ll get the same result.’ Sometimes someone’s got to break that cycle and do something a bit different.”
McKenzie was an international prop, the ponderous heavyweights of the game. Props tend to coach in a plodding, methodical fashion.
And so too McKenzie—for several years. But experience has broadened his approach. As has working with his polar opposite, the mercurial flyhalf Quade Cooper.
Though dropped from the Wallabies by former coach Robbie Deans, the brilliant flyhalf has developed under McKenzie’s coaching at the Queensland Reds.
While not the captain, Cooper will be crucial if McKenzie is to beat the All Blacks.
Firstly, he will run the back-line, which is where the Wallabies will have to win the game.
Secondly, Cooper has made mistakes when targeted in Test matches.
Both McKenzie and Cooper are tough men. McKenzie always was; Cooper has become tough by standing on principle and taking a media backlash, virtually without complaint.
A new coach has to gain respect, but McKenzie’s Wallaby captain is his Reds captain, James Horwill, and his half-back is Reds superstar Will Genia. McKenzie is experienced, is respected by the public and already has respect from several senior players.
As well, he is Australian.
The last coach was from New Zealand, which was a point of mounting contention during his tenure.
Finally, the game is at home.
Despite the positives, the Wallabies play the top-ranked team in the world.
New Zealand dominance expected
The All Blacks appointed a new coach, Steve Hansen after winning the 2011 World Cup. Hansen was promoted from assistant coach, and brought a different personality to All Black media conferences, but the team itself continued winning as if nothing had changed.
Despite that, many NZ fans are reserving judgment, believing the team still has momentum from the last coaching regime, headed by Graham Henry.
From that perspective, this is a must-win game for Hansen; also, a win would change the mindsets of both teams, as McKenzie said above.
A loss would be devastating, a win is almost meaningless, because it is expected.
Hansen has no understanding of how the McKenzie-coached Wallabies play, because they haven’t played.
As well, Hansen knows that NZ fans are already looking fondly towards the coach of the Chiefs, Dave Rennie, who has won consecutive Super titles. Rennie’s assistant is Wayne Smith, who worked with Hansen when both were assistants to Henry with the All Blacks.
If NZ were to change coaches, ideally it would be this year, ahead of the 2015 world cup.
McKenzie will get a period of grace; Hansen had his last year. For Hansen, this is an examination year.
He will be without star flyhalf Dan Carter, who is injured. But captain Ritchie McCaw returns from a post-world cup break.
Long-standing half-back Piri Weepu was dropped for being too slow—this may well close the curtain on his international career.
The All Black three-quarter line has only three Tests together. Yet newcomer wingers Julian Savea and Ben Smith have formed a dangerous combination with veteran fullback Israel Dagg.
Their on-field rapport is impressive, though Dagg said it was expected.
“I’m not surprised,” he said, “it’s our job. It’s what we’ve got to do.”
That pragmatic approach to brilliance is a hallmark of the Henry era, and the success of the three-quarter line suggests that Hansen is continuing the tradition.
Not knowing how the McKenzie Wallabies will play, is not quite the disadvantage it seems. Firstly, most of the players are known, and more importantly, New Zealand teams focus on imposing their style on games, rather than countering the opposing style.
The All Blacks will run the ball and should win. To win, the Wallabies must run the ball. So it should be an exciting, intense Test.
Meanwhile, for the other two teams competing in the Rugby Championship, South Africa hosts Argentina in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Peter Lalanabaravi is a rugby writer with over 30 years experience.