Ewen McKenzie won plaudits for transforming the Queensland Reds from cellar-dwellers into Super Rugby champions within two years, but has only six weeks to revive a demoralized Australia ahead of their first Rugby Championship clash with New Zealand.
The Wallabies that crashed to an insipid 41-16 defeat in Saturday’s series-decider against the British and Irish Lions headed back to their franchises this week to see out the final round of the Super Rugby season, and some will be nervous about their prospects of another Test cap under McKenzie.
The former Test prop has been handed a broom by the Australian Rugby Union and will be expected to shake up a squad riven by discipline problems that were allowed to fester under his predecessor Robbie Deans.
How much McKenzie can actually do ahead of the Aug. 17 Test in Sydney is another question.
At Tuesday’s coronation, McKenzie himself said he had a “thousand things to do” before the All Blacks clash.
Naming a staff of assistants will be high on the agenda, but McKenzie will also be sidetracked by Super Rugby duties because the Reds meet the New South Wales Waratahs this weekend before they embark on their third successive post-season campaign.
A forthright ambassador for Queensland rugby, McKenzie is unlikely to want to risk that legacy and his attention could be diverted for nearly a month if the Reds make a run to the final.
The consequence is likely to be a very Reds-tinged team to take the park against the All Blacks, who only lost three times in 18 Tests to Deans’ Wallabies, with most pundits betting on a hasty rehabilitation of the exiled Quade Cooper.
That Deans could leave the mercurial flyhalf out of his 31-man squad for the Lions series bordered on criminal for many rugby pundits Down Under, who felt exonerated when James O’Connor struggled in the No. 10 shirt throughout the series.
McKenzie was first among the critics, having enjoyed top service from Cooper at the Reds, and is considered certain to try to reinstate the 25-year-old’s successful Super Rugby partnership with scrumhalf Will Genia at the Test level.
“You can’t hide the fact that Ewen’s always been a big fan of Quade’s, but just like every other player in Australia we’re going to have to prove ourselves,” Genia told reporters in Brisbane yesterday.
What to do with playmaker O’Connor, and his friend and accomplice Kurtley Beale, is one of the hairiest decisions McKenzie will face.
Proven match-winners, but also repeat offenders in breaching team discipline, Deans decided the pair’s value on the park would offset their transgressions, a belief that appears increasingly naive amid reports of disharmony in the ranks.
O’Connor’s stocks have plummeted in recent days, with Super Rugby strugglers the Melbourne Rebels dumping the brash 23-year-old, who was regarded a disruptive influence at the club.
Only the Western Force, the club he walked away from in acrimonious circumstances two years ago, have professed an interest, though administrators and players alike have said they expect him to toe the party line should he move back to Perth.
O’Connor’s former Rebels teammate Beale has returned to Sydney, ostensibly to continue his rehabilitation from alcohol-related problems that saw him punch his captain Gareth Delve earlier this year.
McKenzie said reputations would count for nothing in selecting his side, and could stand to cut the pair loose, with Cooper slotting in at flyhalf and Berrick Barnes a replacement for Beale at fullback.
Rugby league convert Israel Folau also offers a ready replacement in the back three for O’Connor’s attacking drive.
Improving the Wallabies’ pack to at least match the All Blacks at set pieces might be McKenzie’s stiffest task, as seen by the collapse of Australia’s scrum against the Lions in the third Test.
McKenzie, who won 51 caps for Australia as a tighthead prop in the 1980s and 1990s, will at least appreciate the job at hand, but the Wallabies have no match for the likes of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Owen Franks, who would be likely to form the All Blacks’ front row.
Following Eddie Jones and John Connolly, New Zealand’s Deans became the third coach to be ousted in the wake of a scrum meltdown and McKenzie’s ability to restore morale to his pack may be key to avoiding another humiliation in Sydney.