Link's actions will speak louder than words
July 15, 2013
Ewen McKenzie will coach "the Australian way" © Getty Images
Ewen McKenzie, in his first week as Wallabies coach, is already making the right statements: the All Blacks are beatable; it's time to tear through that New Zealand aura; playing for Australia is a privilege; there are certain standards anyone in the green-and-gold must uphold on and off the field.
They are all comforting statements, but more importantly they are front-foot statements following five seasons of ultra-cautious Boycott-esque blocking from the previous Australia coach, Robbie Deans. The New Zealander did all he could to avoid confrontation, which allowed numerous opposition Test coaches an open chance to take potshots at the Wallabies knowing full well there would be no reply from the Australian team management; McKenzie won't stand for such a lopsided debate. When the time is right, McKenzie will defend his charges, state his case, and tell it exactly as it is, which will ensure the Australian media will again flock to Wallabies press conferences. Like Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland, McKenzie knows how to use the media … to his advantage.
McKenzie also understands the dark side of the game. Often the true mark of character is not how one embraces success but how one overcomes adversity. And McKenzie, during his coaching days, has had his fair share of tough moments.
He discovered when head coach of the Waratahs between 2004 and 2008 how grubby rugby politics can be. Differences in approach between the football department and the New South Wales Rugby Union administration led to conflict, and McKenzie discovered brutally that supposed allies can be undermining you behind your back. Coaching in France also had its tempestuous moments. But it was in Europe that McKenzie grew as a coach. Most crucially, he relaxed. And it was in the far more harmonious surroundings of Ballymore that McKenzie matured like any good red. There he discovered the benefits of everyone working off the same page, as well as standing your ground.
Biting words have their place, but on-field action and an innovative game plan devised by intelligent coaching and implemented via good communication by open-minded players willing to take it on, is a more effective weapon. And it is in this area where McKenzie can achieve a first strike against New Zealand before the Bledisloe Cup series begins in August. Masterminding a Reds victory over the Crusaders in Saturday night's elimination final in Christchurch will have a far greater effect in undermining New Zealand confidence than any provocative remark to the media.
Australia have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002 © Getty Images
Earlier in the year, numerous New Zealand pundits predicted a Wallabies revival, especially when the Brumbies were the early Super Rugby trendsetters while their provincial sides were struggling to excite. But the Oz push on the other side of the Tasman has died off, primarily because the British & Irish Lions have shown the Wallabies are still shackled by inconsistency, an ineffective scrum, erratic attack and confusing selections. The performance of the Reds and the Brumbies during the Super Rugby finals series will either confirm those beliefs or have the All Blacks feeling a mite edgy that their decade-long stranglehold on the Bledisloe Cup may eventually be coming to an end.
Queensland Reds head into the Super Rugby finals a different beast to the one that won the title in 2011: the Reds still attempt to push the barriers, but they no longer blow teams away through their freakish try-scoring abilities; now their defence is an overbearing ingredient. Before the 2011 finals, the Reds had scored 45 tries. This year, the tally is 31- less than two a match - and the Stormers (30), Western Force (26) and Southern Kings (27) alone have scored fewer tries. Before the 2011 finals, the Reds had conceded 32 tries. This year, the tally is down to 23 - with only the Stormers (18) letting in fewer tries.
So the Reds have become a more frugal outfit. They don't quite have the conclusive look of the 2011 brand, and it will be up to McKenzie, before he gets fitted out for the Wallabies tracksuit, to come up with something special to undermine what appears to be New Zealand's most dangerous province. Perfect practice before a certain Test match in Sydney on August 17.
The Reds of 2013 strangle rather than slice their opponents (video available only in Australia)
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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