Australia coach Ewen McKenzie bullish on Bledisloe Cup retrieval mission
New coach faces back-to-back Tests against the world champions All Blacks in August
New Australia coach Ewen McKenzie believes his players have no reason to feel inferior to their New Zealand counterparts and have every chance of winning the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in more than a decade.
The former Queensland Reds coach, who took over from New Zealander Robbie Deans last month, faces a tough introduction to the world of national team coaching with back-to-back tests against the world champions All Blacks in August.
The final nail in the coffin for Deans was undoubtedly the defeat in the Test series against the British and Irish Lions, in particular the 41-16 humbling in the decider. But it was as much his inability to compete with his native country – he lost 14 of 18 Tests against the All Blacks – and bring the Bledisloe Cup back to Australia for the first time since 2002 that brought an end to his six-year reign.
Talent to challenge
McKenzie gets a first chance to work with his Wallabies players today when a 40-man squad assembles in Sydney for a training camp and the 48-year-old has no doubt he has the talent at his disposal to challenge the All Blacks.
“No one beats them frequently,” he said after naming his first squad. “But it depends . . . on your mindset. It doesn’t mean you’ll get it right every time, statistically it’s quite a difficult task but head-to-head, every one of our players has tasted success against them at one point in time. We play against them more than anyone else . . . so there’s no need to go out there feeling inferior or that it can’t be done.”
The Wallabies play the All Blacks three times this year, twice in the Rugby Championship – in Sydney on August 17th and in Wellington a week later – with a final Bledisloe match in Dunedin in October. Australia must win two to reclaim the trophy.
“It’s harder to win the Bledisloe than to retain it, the way it’s structured, but we have to go out there with a positive mindset,” added McKenzie. “I can’t see any reason why we wouldn’t, we’re close enough to the top of the rankings to say we’re a good side. Why can’t we win it?”
A World Cup winner in 1991, McKenzie played 51 tests for the Wallabies but even in that golden era of Australian rugby still lost seven of his 13 matches against the All Blacks.
After a period as Wallabies assistant coach under Rod McQueen and Eddie Jones, he earned his head coaching stripes with the New South Wales Waratahs, Stade Francais and most recently the Queensland Reds. His greatest success came with the Reds, who he transformed from cellar dwellers to 2011 Super Rugby champions, winning the title with victory over an All Blacks-laden Canterbury Crusaders.
McKenzie restored Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper to his first squad but said people would be mistaken if they assumed his Wallabies would be a carbon copy of the swashbuckling team he built in Queensland.
“It’s a much more diverse group available to a Wallabies coach than to a provincial coach, so we’ve got a bit more space there.”
Unusual in Australia rugby by virtue of his Melbourne upbringing, McKenzie the player also bucked perceived wisdom by being a prop who could scrummage. Despite the Wallabies pack being taken apart in the third Lions Test, McKenzie remains upbeat about his frontrow resources.
“I’m probably more positive than most,” he said. “I think there’s a perception and you don’t do yourself any favours if you have a bad day at the office and the perception comes back pretty quickly. “The reality for Australian rugby is that if the scrum’s going well, no one ever talks about it . . . I don’t think technically we’re in a bad space and we’ve got some good options.”