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.