Ewen McKenzie has had plenty of time to prepare for the challenges of his new position as Wallaby coach – he’s been preparing for the job ever since he retired from playing.
The pool of players from which he will select his team for the Rugby Championship opener against the All Blacks in Sydney on August 18th is basically the same as Robbie Deans had at his disposal. The difference lies in the fact that McKenzie has a group of players who want to play for him and take responsibility for their actions on and off the pitch. Deans was badly let down by a number of the players who showed scant regard for coach and teammates as they stumbled from bars to newspaper headlines in recent months. Deans had clearly lost his team and it was painful to watch.
The Wallabies are likely to come out firing against the All Blacks in Sydney and will surely perform at a much better level than they did against the Lions. McKenzie has strong existing relations with many of the Wallaby squad and with 51 test caps of his own he will be assured of the respect of the remainder of the players – which is a good starting point. He has also shown, as coach of the Reds, that he has the ability to develop a winning culture and to manage effectively a diverse group of players.
Deans selected three players to cover 10 for the Wallaby squad to face the Lions – Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Berrick Barnes. In a clear departure from the Deans era, McKenzie has chosen a different three in Quade Cooper, Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley for his wider training group of 40. With Toomua and Foley uncapped, Cooper may be in pole position for selection but it’s by no means a done deal. McKenzie is a loyal man and his selection of Cooper as captain of the Reds for the game against the Lions in June was a clear endorsement of Cooper at a time when he was out of favour with Deans.
Cooper led the Reds bravely, and although they failed to beat the Lions, they outscored them two tries to one and both skipper and team emerged with credit from the game. However his defensive frailties are a real risk at test level and he has consistently struggled to maintain his composure when facing the All Blacks.
Toomua has performed consistently well during the Super Rugby season but was particularly impressive during the play-off stages. He steered the Brumbies to victory against the Bulls in Pretoria and had another strong game in the final against the Chiefs. He is benefitting from the coaching of Jake White and in particular Stephen Larkham – himself one of the great Aussie out-halves. The 23-year-old has impressed on a number of levels but none more so than his defence – he has become one of the most effective defenders in the Australian game and this is a clear point of difference with Cooper. Toomua has a good, and improving tactical kicking game, receives the ball flat and offloads effectively. Whether he is ready for the step up to the cauldron of test rugby remains to be seen but he is being well guided along a path that will surely lead to a permanent starting spot with the Wallabies.
Foley is probably viewed as a distant third in the race for the starting jersey for the game against the All Blacks and is most likely to be dropped from the wider training group if McKenzie decides to go with only two tens. But Foley has settled quickly to become a key member of the Waratahs team since converting from Sevens, where he won a Commonwealth Games silver medal in 2010 and captained Australia in the 2010-11 IRB Sevens Series. Foley started at 10 in each of the Waratahs sixteen Super Rugby games during the 2013 season, where his Sevens style attacking mentality was a feature of the new ball-in-hand approach of NSW. The partnership and understanding he has with Will Genia, and the faith McKenzie has in his mercurial talent mean that Cooper is highly likely to start against the All Blacks. However, with either Toomua or Foley on the bench, the Wallabies will have strong cover from as yet uncapped players who are still developing, but who both look capable of taking the step up to international level.
Ewen McKenzie is already on the front foot by choosing players experienced at 10 rather than Robbie Deans’ ill-fated experiment of trying to convert James O’Connor. Regardless of whom he selects, and whatever the outcome of this year’s Rugby Championship, the Wallabies finally appear to be developing strength in depth at first five-eighth. With Cooper at 25, two years older than both Toomua and Foley, there is good reason to believe that this critical position will be an area of strength for the Wallabies by the time the Rugby World Cup comes around in 2015.