Ewen McKenzie never disguised his desire to be Wallabies head coach. He wore the gold jersey in 51 Tests, won the 1991 Rugby World Cup, and minutes after he was officially appointed to the Australian job, the ex-front-rower was already laying down the law.
Three days after the Wallabies’ embarrassing 41-16 loss to the British and Irish Lions, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) yesterday ended months of speculation by confirming McKenzie as the replacement for Robbie Deans, who quit six months before his contract was due to expire.
McKenzie has a coaching pedigree that includes stints as an assistant Wallabies coach from 2000 to 2003 and head coach of two Australian clubs, both of which he led to the Super rugby final. Under his leadership, the Queensland Reds made an impressive turnaround to win the 2011 championship only two seasons after languishing at the bottom of the standings.
His first Test in charge of Australia will be against World Cup champions New Zealand in Sydney on Aug. 17.
“There’s no better job, no better task, no better assignment than to go and pit yourself against the All Blacks,” he said. “I can’t wait for the challenge.”
Most of all, to the cynics and conspiracy theorists who never believed a New Zealander and ex-All Black like Deans was the best fit as coach of Australia, McKenzie is a homegrown talent and knows what it takes to make and maintain a spot in the national team.
“Getting clarity on what’s expected at the Wallaby level is critical,” McKenzie said at his first news conference as Wallabies coach. “I’ll make it quite clear what I want from a Wallaby. It’s like a week-to-week contract and if you’re not doing the right thing at the right time, that week-to-week contract might not be there.”
When he joined the Reds in 2010, McKenzie’s priority was to give the struggling squad respect, on and off the field. He succeeded quickly, galvanizing a young group into a champion team.
Deans faced his share of criticism in his five years in charge, which only grew louder after shocking home defeats to Samoa and Scotland and a World Cup group stage loss to Ireland. He had to deal with a long injury toll and the disruptions that brings, but he also took gambles on players in key positions and was let down by some players with their off-field discipline.
Deans became the first foreigner appointed as head coach of the Wallabies in 2008. His departure comes only weeks after South Africa’s Mickey Arthur, the first foreigner appointed as Cricket Australia’s head coach, was fired in the buildup to the Ashes series in England.
The Australian newspaper summed up the comings and goings: “The great experiment with foreign sporting coaches is coming to an end and the Kiwis can go back to being our archenemies.”
Deans told ARU chief executive Bill Pulver on Monday that he wanted to quit, and was quoted in a statement as saying: “It has been a rewarding five years and I am proud of all that we have achieved.”
His 74 Tests as Wallabies coach is a record, and he leaves with a record of 43 wins, 29 losses and two draws. However, he was never able to reproduce the consistency and success he had as coach of the Christchurch-based Super rugby powerhouse Crusaders.
Ahead of the series-deciding Test against the Lions last week, the 53-year-old Deans said he thrived on the rollercoaster emotions of coaching international rugby and could not imagine a day when he didn’t have a Test match to plan for. He did not have to wait long to find out.
Deans’ resignation brought an end to a reign mired in controversies ranging from selection strategies to what one player described as the “toxic” environment in the camp.
While the Wallabies had some stirring wins during his tenure, including the 2011 Tri-Nations title and the World Cup quarter-final win over the then world champion Springboks, it was the losses that counted heavily against him and polarized support for his Wallabies.
The 48-year-old McKenzie and ACT Brumbies coach Jake White, who guided South Africa to the 2007 World Cup title, were long considered the leading contenders to replace Deans.
White said he had no doubt McKenzie got the job because he is Australian.
“It’s not a perception, it’s a fact,” White told Australian Associated Press. “You fired the cricket coach, put an Aussie in, fired the rugby coach and put an Aussie in. They’ve tried foreigners and I appreciate that. That doesn’t mean that I have to agree or disagree with it. That’s the nature of the game we’re in.”
McKenzie essentially gave the ARU an ultimatum in March when he announced his intention to leave the Reds to pursue a national coach assignment. His backers point to McKenzie’s ability to adapt a game plan to suit the talents of a team, rather than impose a rigid playing structure, as a key coaching attribute that the Wallabies need.
His appointment could see the return of former Test and Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper, whose Wallabies career appeared to be over after he complained about the “toxic environment” of the squad under Deans last year. He was later heavily fined for the comments.
Deans did not select Cooper for the three-Test Lions series, experimenting instead with the untried James O’Connor in the pivotal flyhalf position. The move backfired, with O’Connor struggling to consistently direct the Australian backline and getting himself into trouble off the field.
“When I was a coach and a player, I was there when the team was successful,” McKenzie said. “So I think I understand what it takes and the sacrifices you need to make to be able to be successful at that level.”