Ewen McKenzie: why, wherefore of cultural revolution
August 11, 2014
Ewen McKenzie tells ESPNscrum about the Wallabies' preparations for the 2014 Bledisloe Cup series
We don't always get to hear much about our top-level coaches these days, but often there's stories and insight to be provided that goes well beyond the standard cliches.
In the latest of our series profiling the best clipboard-holders in the game - Dave Rennie, Michael Foley, and Laurie Fisher to date - I had the absolute privilege of speaking with Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie in the run-in to the Bledisloe Cup opener in Sydney.
Now 12 months into the job, McKenzie spoke openly and frankly on numerous topics - including the June series sweep of France, his "six-team approach" to Australian rugby, why he runs the Wallabies like a business, and his unplanned but ultimately successful transition from player to coach.
ESPNscrum: Six months to prepare for the first Bledisloe Test this year, as opposed to roughly six weeks last year. Does more time bring more pressure?
Ewen McKenzie: Well I might've had six weeks to think about it last time, but only two weeks with the players (laughs). I didn't know half the players; I only got to know them in the first two weeks. It was a different challenge - there was a lot to do in a very short space of time. I clearly had to finish with the Reds, and there was a bit of overlap.
So yeah, it is a very different circumstance now. We've covered a lot of territory, we've worked hard on our playing style, we've worked hard on the succession players and where players are, and we've tried to be very consistent in that.
I'm much happier with where we're at right now but we know the enormity of the task ahead.
Scott Fardy has made a big impression on the Wallabies © Getty Images
ESPNscrum: The obvious difference between last season and the squad you've announced for The Rugby Championship this year is just the one potential debutant in Henry Speight, as opposed to the 10 or 12 last year. Are you confident you've got the players for the style of game you want the Wallabies to play?
Ewen McKenzie: We took a punt, but we had thoughts last year and we introduced a bunch of guys - the likes of a Scott Fardy is probably a good example, where he probably wasn't in the landscape nationally - and then we picked that squad of 40. I'm probably more pleased that we've respected that group pretty well; we haven't really gone too far out of that, so the core of the team remains the same from that group we picked originally.
There's been a couple of new additions this year with Sam Carter and Will Skelton, and that's largely to reinforce positional depth and develop some talent in areas we are a little bit lighter on, but fundamentally we've picked a core of guys last year and still using them.
I'm pleased about that, and that's the way we have to be consistent in terms of our results because we have been reasonably consistent in terms of our selections.
ESPNscrum: I won't ask if you think the Wallabies are best placed to end the Bledisloe drought, but I'd love to ask why you think you are?
Ewen McKenzie: I think everyone is going to look at the history and just say [it's because it's been] 11 or 12 years, or whatever it is, but there's been different circumstances along the way in that time, so you can't say there's any one reason why we haven't been to able win the cup.
I think right now there's a whole bunch of things you can do in terms of preparation. That's all you can do is work on preparation; you can't play the game until it arrives, so all you can do is make sure your preparation is right. But if you can go into a big game with consistency of selection and consistency and buy-in around how you want to play the game, then there's a whole lot of trust. And trust goes in all directions - we trust the players, the players trust us; all of those relationships have been developed now.
We've got some new faces, which is good. We've got players in form. We've got 22 of the guys coming out of the two teams that played semi-finals in Super Rugby, and we're coming off a seven game winning streak, so there's confidence that comes of that, so that we're able to get out there and make things happen.
The French series was a real test for us, but people won't say that because they'll look at the score board and say it was easy. But the reality is we had one week to prepare for the first Test and we were able to score seven tries on a one-week preparation. That gives us confidence that we can get to the task of winning quickly, and the players can dust themselves off and re-assemble and combine as a team and find their combinations quickly. So that's a good thing when you are going into a big game, when effectively we haven't played since June.
Ewen McKenzie liked how his team adapted against France in Melbourne © Getty Images
ESPNscrum: Just on the France series, how satisfied were you that the guys could go out and play to a completely different game plan in that second Test [which Australian won 6-0] and still grind out the win?
Ewen McKenzie: Well that's the point, it wasn't actually a different game plan or philosophy. We had subtle things that had changed, but the opposition played the game differently. Our intention and philosophy wasn't any different. You're always tweaking things, but we never went out the there and said 'we won't score a try'; that's never in our game plan. We have to react to the circumstances; you have to play well enough.
What I said before the series, was that anyone who plays France three times in a row, there's always a risk of losing - it happened the year before when France played in New Zealand, they almost got through in one of the test matches. That is what France are like, so you have to be tough enough and find ways to win across those three games. The last time we played them in a three-Test series, we won 2 -1. The French aren't down for that long and when they make big team changes like they did in the Second Test, they get a reaction on the field. We had to cope with that, and we did; we created try scoring opportunities, but we weren't good enough to get the ball over the stripe. We got over the try three times but we didn't get rewarded for it.
The scoreboard is what everyone will judge us on, but there is a lot in the detail there. I was very proud of the fact we were able to win the series 3-0, and score a bunch of tries against what I classify as a really hard team to play. People will say that they weren't, but the reality is that was a pretty good French side. I know the French really well and that was a good French side that came out here, and I thought we handled it well.
ESPNscrum: I guess the reality is that when you play France over three Tests, you're likely to face three different sides.
Ewen McKenzie: Absolutely. Everyone that's close to the business of rugby knows that when the French make 10 changes, watch out.
That's what happened, they made their ten changes but they also changed their game significantly tactically, and they were playing to avenge and obviously to put on a better performance, but they played far more conservatively than you would expect. And we had to react to that, and we didn't execute, and we made mistakes and we contributed to the [spectacle of the] game. It certainly wasn't our intention to go out there and not score a try; it never is.
ESPNscrum: You mentioned 'buy-in" before, and I wanted to ask you about your interactions with the states. Do you think you're doing more with the Super Rugby sides as Wallabies coach than perhaps what you remember from when you coached the Waratahs and the Reds?
Ewen McKenzie: My experience as a Super coach was that I'd have a look up the line. And you have to remember that before I was a Super head coach I was an assistant coach at the wallabies so I had a lot of dealing with provinces. I was actually a national selector back in the early 2000s, so I had dealings directly with head coaches.
I've seen it done different ways. I've had what I call a six-team approach to the whole thing. I don't treat us, the Wallabies, as being intellectually superior or different; I say we are using the same players in a different window, that's my philosophy. So why wouldn't I collaborate with the provincial coaches to get the best out of the players across a 12-month season?
So I spent time, particularly in the pre season, talking to them and we spend time during the season going to training and having conversations. I have good relationships with all the coaches, I can ring them and we talk about things, but we don't live in each other pockets. I don't tell them what to do, I respect their programs. They all do it differently, different playing approach, different things happening around their programs. All I want to do is understand it, but not judge it, and we work with that and we trust them to do the best things for the players. We all want the players to play their best football, so we work together on that and not in competition.
I would like to think that is one of the significant things that have happened in the last period of time, is that we've worked really well together. There's always going to be moments of conflict and competing interests, but fundamentally I've allowed the Super teams to have their window and their time in the sun, and we get our time now. So it's quite clear where the boundaries of that are, so there's no overlap, and that's worked pretty well.
Matt Toomua is increasingly influential for the Wallabies © Getty Images
ESPNscrum: Do you worry about players playing different positions in Super Rugby, to how you use them in the Wallabies structure? And Matt Toomua [playing 12 for the Wallabies, but 10 for the Brumbies] would be the most obvious example.
Ewen McKenzie: I don't worry about it because every player in the Wallabies backline, maybe apart from the half-backs, can play in multiple positions.
Depending on how you want to play the game, and you have to think about this - the Brumbies play a certain way, the Waratahs play a certain way, so they use players how they want to use them in that game style. We've got a different game style, we don't mimic any of those teams. People mightn't realise that, but we actually have a different style and a different philosophy around it, so we use players accordingly.
The players don't have any problems adapting. And who's to say, if you take someone like Pat McCabe, who was a fullback in the academy when I was at the Waratahs, who's been to the wing and then to the centre, who's to say which is his best position? He has played all of those positions successfully at the representative level.
I always talk to the players for their preferred position, but they have capacity to adapt. That doesn't mean that you want to have people moving around all the time, but you do have to have a game style, and you try and put the players in their best positions. Generally, or maybe 90% of the time, it lines up with what the provinces are doing, sometimes it doesn't. It's not the end of the world. The best thing about Wallaby players, or Wallaby-standard players, is they adapt really quickly.
ESPNscrum: Despite the Wallabies playing differently, as you've said, does it feel like the five states are coming onto the same page, in terms of their attacking plans?
Ewen McKenzie: No, I'm not going to take credit for that. For instance, Michael Cheika came in [at the Waratahs] with a very clear attacking intent last year, and he's developed that. His approach has been pretty consistent.
If you look at the statistics you'll see the variations in the game approaches. The Brumbies had a style last year that was very successful and got them to the Final. They probably replicated that this year, but then they moved from that style a little bit lately because they can, they have a lot of skill. I was very impressed with the skill level of the Brumbies backs, I didn't know so many of those guys last year, and we are very impressed with their capabilities.
I think that teams are always moving and they're organic. Game styles and game plans need to be organic because the trends in the game change, so I think that's lining up well that we're playing with intent to score tries and the [Super Rugby] teams are as well. The Waratahs and the Reds, everyone is trying to do the same thing, and I think that's a good thing; it suits the Australian rugby ethos.
Ewen McKenzie tells ESPNscrum about his rugby philosophy, how he measures success, and his method of running the Wallabies like a business%]
ESPNscrum: I wanted to ask you about that, actually. We've often heard about this 'Australian way' of playing rugby, but it's often hard to put your finger on what the Australian way is. So I wanted to ask you if there genuine meaning in that, or whether it's a bit of an urban myth?
Ewen McKenzie: If you think about Australian rugby, we've paid our outside backs the most amount of money, probably, over the years. If you go to Europe, they pay the tight-head prop the most amount of money. That will give you an idea, philosophically, where we think about it, and where the fans and the kids and their heroes and all those sorts of things are in Australian rugby, that's just where it is. The finishers, as opposed to the ball-winners, are the ones that get talked about.
I'm a little bit deeper than that, I understand how the game works and everyone needs to make their contribution, but that's how we are set up. People want to see the ball promoted through a ball-in hand approach. I don't think it's been any different. If you go back to the '70s and '60s, we were playing Test match rugby on 30% possession - but winning - because we didn't have that capacity [in the forwards]. Things are changing now, we are far more competitive up front, but we have always had the intention to play with the backs.
ESPNscrum: You're heading into The Rugby Championship with the same assistant coaches you had last year, but I'm wondering how you go about assembling coaching panels? What do you look for in an assistant coach?
Ewen McKenzie: You look for offsets in personality and technical contributions. Fundamentally, the assistant coach is going to deliver a lot of the technical pieces in terms of improvement and tactical, and I've been an assistant coach so I know exactly what the role is.
You don't want everyone's personalities types to be the same, so you need different types of thinkers and personalities. You don't need a whole bunch of guys that are going to rubber stamp what you say; you actually need to have the capacity for people to speak their mind, and that's where you get the robust debate around selection and game approach and things like that.
I've worked with so many different people over the years; I don't necessarily travel around with an entourage of the same people. I tend to arrive in teams and have a look at the people, and work it out, and you adapt. Every team I've been at has been different. They're always different cultures and different circumstances, so I tend to start from scratch and then build it.
There are some core things you need in your staff - in this business, you need world class habits. If you want to be for a world class team, you need world class habits, and you need a terrific work ethic. And you need innovation - you've got to be trying to move forward all the time, and not sitting there doing the same thing year after year.
ESPNscrum: The follow-up to that, then, is how do you measure success as a coach?
Ewen McKenzie tells ESPNscrum about his transition from playing to coaching, trends in the game today, and the best player he's coached%]
Ewen McKenzie: Most people judge the success on the scoreboard, we are not blind to that fact, that the score board matters. We have a whole lot of information at our fingertips, through GPS and statistical analysis, we have a lot of information that allows us to measure improvement and work out if we are being successful in terms of our coaching by the things we can track. So we do have a lot of knowledge there.
The public debate about players and positions and styles and things like that is valid, but we have a lot more information at our fingertips that helps us to make the most objective decisions we can. I'll give you an example, going into the June series and everyone was talking about the merits of [locks Will] Skelton and [Luke] Jones, and we ended up picking [Sam] Carter in the first Test and he probably got Man of the Match, but no one was talking about Carter.
We had liked his work for two years; every statistic and piece of information we would get said that he was a very consistent performer, and that's what we needed. We figured the game wouldn't have pace in it and he'd suit that, so we selected him. He was the least favoured option in terms of the public, and he ended up getting man of the match, so that's where we have the capacity to look a little bit deeper because we have the resources to do it.
The Wallabies have a passionate audience to appease © Getty Images
ESPNscrum: You've spoken this year, particularly, of running the Wallabies like a business, to the point where you're almost a quasi-CEO. Do you think that's where modern international coaching is heading?
Ewen McKenzie: You have to, to do credit to the job, in my opinion. The Wallabies are a massive economic engine, not only in terms of revenue, but also in terms of cost. So it's my duty to Australian rugby as a whole to make sure we run a tight ship, that we're not frivolous in terms of spending money and wasting money as we go along. Any money we save will trickle down the line to other programs and other things. We're at the pinnacle, so I don't see why we can't run a tight ship.
The business of rugby, and that's wider [than just the professional game], that's supporting community programs and new initiatives, and being involved in the total business and commercial parts of it, and understanding how the Wallabies can contribute to the total infrastructure is important.
But by the same token, I'm the biggest custodian of culture, and developing culture is the biggest single difference. We can work on the technical part of the game, but to improve teams you've got to improve their cultures, and if you're managing the totality of it, external forces affect the culture all the time. People want to be involved, want the resources, and you've got to manage that. So you can't not have an over-arching or overseeing role, otherwise people start managing your business for you.
I'm in the business of making the team world class and consistently successful, and you need to be controlling all the elements, all the elements, not just on the training and playing field.
ESPNscrum: And as a result of that business approach and greater involvement than perhaps Wallabies coaches have in the past, does it feel like there is a better interaction between the team and the ARU now?
Ewen McKenzie: Well, we sit here in the office every day. I'm in the office every day of the year when I'm not on [coaching] duty, so I'm involved in every part. There's ten parts of the business of Australian Rugby, ten different divisions, so I make sure I understand each of those, and I make sure I know my budget back the front.
I've got good people working for me that manage it hour-by-hour, so we're on top of our game. We like to set standards not only on the football field, but in the office as well, in terms of how we function, and our business habits.
World-class behaviours don't stop on the training paddock, or start on the training paddock, you've actually got to be world class all the time. Everyone can contribute to that environment, and that's a state of mind, so you've got to keep looking for it, keep chasing it wherever you can.
ESPNscrum: I've asked all the coaches we've spoken to in this series about their coaching background or transition into coaching - yours was pretty seamless, wasn't it?
Ewen McKenzie worked with Eddie Jones as early as 1998 © Getty Images
Ewen McKenzie: I never wanted to be a coach. I'd set myself up to work in the waste management business, I was a town planner by trade, so I'd set myself up to work and I fact, I did work. I finished [playing] at the Brumbies, and retired from Test rugby in 1997, and went to work in '98 but I maintained a casual coaching involvement with Eddie [Jones, Brumbies coach at the time] doing scrums for the Brumbies in '98, and then '99 was the first year that assistant coaches were paid; prior to that only the head coach was paid.
At that point they offered me a coaching position, which was roughly the same as what I was earning in the real world, so I gave it a go but it wasn't my intention to get into coaching.
I did that bit in '98 and enjoyed that involvement, and it's a difficult transition made easier because I was very clear in my mind to delineate that I'm now a coach and not a player. I couldn't walk around enjoying the benefits of being a player any longer, so I had to make a very clear statement and I went from being a team-mate to being staff member. And I think that's a transition that people can make a lot of mistakes if they try and maintain the same relationships, and it's just not possible when you starting to pick people and get involved in selections, you have a different relationship.
It doesn't mean you can't be friends, but it's a different relationship, you can't have it both ways. You have to draw a line in the sand and get on with it. And once I made the transition to coaching, I was on a different journey.
ESPNscrum: You were actually doing elements of an assistant coaching role while you were still playing with the Brumbies, weren't you?
Ewen McKenzie: Yeah, I was the second out-of-towner to sign with the Brumbies, I think, so I was very involved with Rod McQueen and did a lot of work off the field. Because I was based in Sydney, I got involved with a lot of the commercial things, because the Brumbies had no money at the start, and so I was literally walking the streets of Sydney with an item of apparel and finding an individual sponsor for it, to give us some depth in terms of clothing. So I had mates and friends sponsoring hats and they all had different individual sponsors because we had no money.
The Brumbies were essentially frozen out in the early years; Rod thumbed his nose at the administrators and said, 'we'll pick who we want' and so we forged our way there.
So yeah, I was very involved off the field. I was in the room when we first came up with the [Brumbies] name and all sorts of things like that, when we made those critical decisions, so yeah, I was involved in more than a playing capacity in the early days. In fact, I was actually captain of the team for the first bunch of games, because Brett Robinson was injured.
[McKenzie did indeed captain the Brumbies in their first two games of the inaugural Super 12 season in 1996. Useful pub trivia fact.]
It was good times; I enjoyed the challenge of setting up a new team from scratch, and I enjoyed the whole business aspect of that, as well as the football aspect.
Ewen McKenzie re-built Queensland Reds in he 2011 Super Rugby champions © Getty Images
Ewen McKenzie enjoyed success at the Waratahs; recognise a pattern © Getty Images
ESPNscrum: I've actually got a note here to get you to confirm or deny the story that you were responsible for that wonderful old Brumbies' Canberra Milk cow-print training jersey ...
Ewen McKenzie: Yeah, that's true (laughs). I've got that photo on my desk here. We were sponsored by Classic then [who coincidently came back as the Brumbies kit supplier in 2014], and I remember fossicking in their back room for off-cuts and old spools of material in the first year for training jumpers, and we did that cow-patch one with Classic in the second year.
ESPNscrum: You mentioned changing trends in the game earlier in our chat - I'm wondering if you can point to some obvious game and even coaching trends in recent years?
Ewen McKenzie: Trends usually revolve around defence, and whether defence is dominating attack, so that's the over-arching trend. And that's very much a function of how referees are interpreting the game, not so much law change. Where the focus is at the breakdown, there's been a lot more consistency about that over the last four years, I think.
Statistically, there's a lot of things that are relevant, but you have to keep working out which things are [the most] relevant. A few years ago, tackle completion was a really important statistic - so the teams that were completing their tackles at the highest percentages tended to be the better teams, the teams that were more successful and did better - but that's not so much the case now. Now it's more about advantage line and other aspects, so teams that miss tackles aren't necessarily the worst teams.
You look at half-time statistics that are presented in games, and a lot of those statistics don't actually have a lot of relevance in terms of winning and losing. They might be interesting statistics for people [watching at home], but they don't tell you whether you're going to win or lose.
Sometimes not having the ball has been better over the years; the team that has less possession does better. The All Blacks still kick the most out of the international teams, so you could argue that kicking is [still] a very important aspect of the game, but it gets down to quality. So you've got to keep looking at all that. You can't say there are teams that don't kick at all, and some that kick a lot, like the All Blacks, so you've got to keep tracking all that and what's relevant.
Then you've got to work out skill sets you've got, because in the end, you can't do things that you're not good at, and you've got to keep working out what you're capable doing and making sure you find something in those approaches to keep you winning.
ESPNscrum: To finish up, the question that Dave, Michael, and Laurie all had the most trouble with - who's been the best player you've coached?
Ewen McKenzie: Ah... (laughs)
Well I've been around a long time, I've coached a lot of players and I can't even remember half the players I've coached, that's how long I've been around...
I've been privileged, I've coached as an assistant coach and as a head coach in some good eras. As an assistant coach [with the Wallabies], I was there at the start of the 2000s, and we beat the British Lions, we won the Bledisloe a couple of times, and the Tri-Nations. We lost the Final of the World Cup in extra time. There's some pretty special player in that era.
I can't delineate one or the other; I tend to digress more to players I played with, and people ask me that question all the time, who was the best player I played with - and it's funny, because I played predominantly in the amateur era, and it's a distinction I make to kids all the time, and up-and-coming players, that the most professional players I played with weren't necessarily in the professional era.
I always point to someone like Simon Poidevin, who was a burgeoning stockbroker running a stockbroking business, physically immaculately presented, and you had to be able to manage your life to do the training outside of your work environment, and travel, and people were taking leave without pay. That era then was a very professional era because of the competing interests that were in play. That still sticks in my mind, because we all had to do the same thing, so that was a very professional era for me, and I was lucky to have played in that era, in the amateur era as well as now getting to experience the professional era.
The professional habits in those [amateur] times were impressive, and someone like a Simon Poidevin, for me, was able to manage his total life and be one of the best players of his time. So I always draw upon someone like him as an inspirational person because of that, the nature of the journey at the time.
These days, there's a lot of good players, so you can't really delineate. They're all different, but they're still good players and I've been privileged to coach plenty. So I can't say who's been better or worse.
In the third audio clip of our interview, McKenzie does elaborate on why he was proud of the success he had with the Waratahs, and a favourite memory of a player during the Queensland Reds' championship season of 2011.
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