Ewen McKenzie’s evolution finds the missing Link

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    Ewen McKenzie is deservedly receiving the wholesale praise of the rugby community, not just Reds fans, for the performance of the Queensland Reds in the 2011 Super Rugby season.

    Saturday night’s game was the latest accolade in an already highly decorated rugby career as player and coach. It is the culmination of his prodigious work ethic and personal sacrifice over many years. It is not over yet.

    His record is 51 caps as a Wallaby, a Rugby World Cup win as a player in 1991, a Rugby World Cup win as an assistant coach in 1999, Super 14 finalist in 2005 and 2008 and now Super Rugby winners in 2011.

    I admired his self awareness when he refused to take the Wallabies coaching job, citing that he did not think he was ready for it. While probably true, it was an extraordinary decision.

    It showed utmost respect for the national team, savvy understanding that it was a poisoned chalice and great self awareness rather than nagging self doubt.

    Despite my regard for the man, I was a fervent critic of McKenzie, the coach, during his Waratahs tenure. I believed that he coached with a forward bias and without a sufficiently confident attacking game plan, even though the rules at the time were less conducive than now.

    I sat through so many appallingly dull games while exciting attackers such as Beale and Burgess were underutilised, undercoached and in Beale’s case, not remotely fit.

    The Stade Francais coaching job was a big opportunity and a mighty challenge. Professional coaching is hard enough without having to do it in another language. McKenzie is fluent in French. Fluent or not, language nuances can be very tricky at press conferences.

    This experience ended abruptly for McKenzie and his assistant Dominici when they were removed because it was thought that they had lost the players’ ear.

    Several questions remained: Had the Peter Principle, ‘in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence’ come into force, or had the New South Wales Waratahs and Stade Francais, both among the most famous and successful clubs in world rugby, thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

    Was McKenzie developing as a coach throughout this period?

    In 2009, the Queensland Reds hit rock bottom. At the time, I christened them the Koalas after their logo and for their soft and cuddly performances.

    Queensland Rugby appointed McKenzie as head coach for 2010, as the Wallabies’ newly appointed vice-captain Berrick Barnes jumped ship and Will Chambers tried to renege on his contract.

    McKenzie in turn appointed Jim McKay and that was all the resources he had at his disposal. Necessity is the mother of invention. Together they were the first to successfully understand and adapt to the changes to the interpretation of the breakdown laws.

    They soared up the ladder only to falter and finish fifth, one place out of the finals.

    Tellingly, they slayed the dragon in round two, beating the Crusaders 41-20 at home, beat the Chiefs away 23-18, beat the Cheetahs away, 31-10, narrowly lost to the Sharks 30-28 away then beat the Lions, the Bulls and the Stormers.

    They had announced themselves emphatically. Gone was the McKenzie of the Waratahs days. He sent out young players to have some fun and play whatever was in front of them. Genia, Cooper, Slipper,

    Higginbotham, the Faingaas and Horwill entered the Wallabies squad. Simmons, Robinson, Davies and Daley have followed.

    On the 22nd January this year, I wrote on The Roar “The Reds will not win the 2011 Super Rugby tournament.”

    I was not alone. They were rated 15/1 by the Bookmakers. The Bulls and Crusaders were joint favourites at 4/1.

    Thankfully, by Round 11, and despite the loss to the Hurricanes, they had convinced me that they were the real deal.

    They duly finished the punishing 18-week competition in first place. The dragon-slaying continued, with wins over the Crusaders (twice), the Blues (twice), Stormers, Bulls and Waratahs.

    McKenzie has addressed the multitude of problems he inherited at the Reds by employing his town planning skills. He simply plotted the shortest distance between where he was and where he needed to get to.

    He needed to invigorate and build the confidence of his young squad by building on their Gen Y need for personal enjoyment and get them to play exciting, high octane rugby. This would in turn bring the crowds back and further encourage his youngsters.

    It worked on and off the field. He got the best out of his players. He stood up to the supposed stars like Chambers and selected on performance and suitability, not reputation.

    He multiskilled Digby Ioane, reinventing him as an outside centre.

    He gave fellow cast-offs like Beau Robinson a chance, and the self confidence to take that chance. Cooper has become a potentially once-in-a-generation fly half.

    There has not been one mention of winning ugly. The Queensland rugby supporters get it when he adjusts the tactics. What doesn’t change is the players’ determination and full commitment to the cause for 80 minutes.

    There are several telling aspects to the Ewen McKenzie coaching biography.

    He gave up a career to become a coach. He has developed significantly as a coach and is now a multi-disciplined, highly experienced, innovative and clever one.

    At the same time, he is still the same, laconic, generous, straightforward man that he always was.

    He has sacrificed more than most to achieve this. Since departing the Waratahs in 2008, his wife and daughters have remained in Sydney while he was first in Paris and now in Brisbane.

    Just a few days after his dismissal from Stade Francais, he honoured his commitment to Ruggamatrix by appearing on the podcast, answering the obvious but painful questions for Djuro Sen and the voyeuristic rugby community, and maintaining his dignity throughout.

    Finally, he has curbed his smorgasbord-clearing appetite, despite the daily grind of being a professional coach and being away from home-cooked meals.

    My congratulations go to Ewen McKenzie and his coaching and playing staff for providing great rugby for us all to watch and marvel at, and setting up Australian rugby for another golden era.

    Meanwhile his former employers, the NSW Waratahs and Stade Francais, continue to languish in mediocrity with a failure to evolve or find the missing Link.

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    The Crowd Says (52)

    • July 11th 2011 @ 8:01am
      N.E.B. said | July 11th 2011 @ 8:01am | ! Report

      great article LAS. I cheered it.

      Integrity is the key word for me to describe Link.

      Just like the player depth, the coaching depth is now much better with two backups, Nucifora and Link in the mix with Deans. both backups have now won Super rugby titles………………wow.

    • July 11th 2011 @ 8:19am
      Fredfunk said | July 11th 2011 @ 8:19am | ! Report

      Yes – it seems the only name everyone needed to hear that was not announced yeaterday was “McKenzie, Ewan”.

    • July 11th 2011 @ 8:23am
      Capital said | July 11th 2011 @ 8:23am | ! Report

      Good read LAS.
      McKenzie demonstrates that we can develop high grade coaches in our own backyard. And without any real baggage in the Reds (coming from rock bottom) that a young team can be nurtured by a smart coach to play with flair and structure.
      Well done Link, the framework you have put in place with the Reds is a huge baseline for our Wallabies leading into the next 3 years. The Reds set the tone – proved they could beat the best (as above) and with that confidence came the opportunities for the Wallabies – beating the French, Springboks, and All Blacks. I think they confidence they learnt and lived every week in 2010 under Link provided the impetus for success at the end of 2010 in the Tri Nations, and for their season this year.
      It all bodes well for the RWC and McKenzie can again take credit for his role in our 2011 campaign.

    • July 11th 2011 @ 8:42am
      Johnno said | July 11th 2011 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      Lets get this man link and his support staff back to the waratahs. I hope matt burke as one of the coaching staff doesn’t mind.

      • Roar Guru

        July 11th 2011 @ 11:16am
        B-Rock said | July 11th 2011 @ 11:16am | ! Report

        Johnno

        I like you would love to have McKenzie back at the Tahs but unfortunately this will never happen. He will never coach the tahs again for 3 reasons:

        – The reds will not let him go – the turnaround he has driven is remarkable and the Reds organisation will value this at least for the duration of his career

        – The way he was treated (like many other players and coaches before and since) was completely unprofessional and, I imagine, the end of any possible relationship in the future.

        – He is clearly in line to be the next WBs coach. At some stage Robbie Deans will coach the ABs (probably after the recently signed extension) at which time McKenzie will be a highly experienced and successful coach at the provincial level

        Other than his family being in Sydney, you would have to ask why McKenzie would coach the Tahs again?

    • July 11th 2011 @ 9:02am
      sheek said | July 11th 2011 @ 9:02am | ! Report

      Leftie,

      Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful article…..

      You know, the Reds can provide the inspiration to the Waratahs. That is, the Waratahs can be something if they want to be. Once upon a time, the Waratahs were the champions of running rugby. But probably not much during the professional era.

      But can the Waratahs rise while there are people in club-land willing to cast each other adrift? I doubt it – united they stand, divided they fall. A divided house will not conquer & NSW is a house divided…..

      Also love how McKenzie has evolved as a coach, possessing multiple game plans, & the flexibility to change accordingly to availability of his players, opposition, conditions & circumstances. Simple really but very clever all the same.

      • Roar Guru

        July 11th 2011 @ 11:59am
        LeftArmSpinner said | July 11th 2011 @ 11:59am | ! Report

        Sheek,

        I find it both amazing and very worrying that the Waratahs have an equivalent opportunity in terms of player base, underlying competitions, facilities and squad, and yet the Waratahs still propose and ineffective, “proven to fail” approach that after 10 plus years has not delivered anything on the field and has destroyed the spectator base to unsustainable levels……..

        If one were to contest my “not delivered anything” comment, I would refer you to real winners, such as both Link and Horwill, and for that matter the Crusaders and any decent competitive team. Second is no where.

        The Tahs just need to look over the fence and copy the approach. of course, losing Beale is a very, very big loss that might not be repaired for a generation or more.

        Yet, they still witter on about how many tries they have scored and injuries etc etc. nope, the spectator, particularly the rugby spectator, is smarter than that dusty old spin.

        When did we last see the Waratahs play comprehensive, passionate, self belief ladden rugby, smashing into rucks and tackles for 80 minutes while also playing exciting attacking rugby when they had the ball? probably against the Reds in round two against the Reds.
        A week later, the Tahs reverted to type and got destroyed by the Crusaders in Nelson…….The crusaders were coming off a first round loss to the Blues, an draw due to the earthquake and a hastily constructed temporary “new” home ground in sleepy Nelson more than 416 kms away.

        • July 11th 2011 @ 12:05pm
          formeropenside said | July 11th 2011 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

          re the loss of Beale – in the last few years Qld has lost Barnes, Pocock and JOC: will that not cripple them for a generation?

          To be fair, I blame the Force and the ARU for the 2005-2007 downward spiral the Reds found themself in: that is, they certainly helped turn a hiccup into a nosedive.

          But losing one player is not comparable to that.

          • July 11th 2011 @ 2:44pm
            El Gamba said | July 11th 2011 @ 2:44pm | ! Report

            You should be blaming Eddie Jones. Look at their tour squad to SA in 2006 below – there are some pretty handy players there that didn’t reach their potential – some who have since.

            Berrick Barnes, Rodney Blake, Caleb Brown , Mitchell Chapman, Mark Connors, Sam Cordingley, David Croft, Sean Hardman, Greg Holmes, James Horwill, Julian Huxley, Peter Hynes , Lloyd Johansson , Steve Kefu , Chris Latham, Anthony Mathison , Tom McVerry, Drew Mitchell, Stephen Moore, Ben Mowen , Aniva Niumata , John Roe, Ben Tune , Cameron Treloar , Josh Valentine , Henari Veratau

            Before you say that some of those players have now had 4 or 5 seasons to mature, look at how the youngsters are coming through Qld now under a culture of belief.

        • July 11th 2011 @ 11:37pm
          mack said | July 11th 2011 @ 11:37pm | ! Report

          Now Waugh has retired the Waratahs will improve. I believe while he was a good player – his style and temperament has been the biggest anchor to play positively. Look what happened during this season when playing the reds constantly played the ball in the forwards while camped on the reds try line – refusing to try other options. His behavior after the 2008 Super Final in not acknowledging Links contribution to NSW during the final speeches. While this was rude, The Waratahs play was one dimensional while Waugh was playing. Why else has Link commented that the reds are a coach-able team – obviously because during Waugh’s time in NSW the team would not listen to different ideas..

    • July 11th 2011 @ 9:05am
      Jack Thompson said | July 11th 2011 @ 9:05am | ! Report

      A well written, pecise synopsis of the development of Ewem McKenzie as a player, coah and leader. He has worked hard, applied himself and learnt through his successes and setbacks. A remarkable achivement. He has risen above the setbacks in mediocre organisations like the Waratahs.

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