As they say, a week is a long time in sport. This time last week, Ewen McKenzie was the reason why a many a Wallabies supporter was excited about the start of a new era.
New coach, new players, new ideas, new success. Or so we thought.
And I say ‘we’ deliberately, because I don’t mind admitting that I shared a lot of that excitement.
I wouldn’t say I expected McKenzie to cure all ills with a simple wave of the hand and a puff of dramatic smoke, but I did like the fact that the side he picked for his first Test was based more on actual and current form, than on reputation or potential.
A new coach brings a new perspective, and a new message. Perhaps ‘we’ took more from his message than was served up, but it still felt as though a new era for the Wallabies was dawning.
Iain Payten used a beautiful line in yesterday’s News Ltd press, to describe the harsh reality of Bledisloe I:
“The All Blacks have a habit of flossing their teeth with Australian optimism and so it proved again on Saturday night.”
The parallels with the Australian cricket team were predictably made over the weekend, too, but even after the loss in Sydney, I think the Wallabies are still the team more likely to beat New Zealand first.
So where does Ewen McKenzie go from here? And what can he do to turn things around for Wellington on Saturday night? Does he get out the broom, or does he ‘pick and stick’?
For mine, there is little point swinging the broom. I’ve never been a big fan of wholesale changes after a loss for any team in any sport. I’ll point you back to our cricket team as proof of what can happen to revolving door teams.
McKenzie even having just another week with his team, and being able to analyse something he put together rather than collating the work of four other Super Rugby coaches plus his own, will make a difference in the preparations for Bledisloe II.
It mightn’t make for pleasant viewing, but the McKenzie Wallabies now have a benchmark to work from.
The breakdown certainly needs to be the first point addressed. While Michael Hooper was very, very good – and I’ll happily stand corrected, having suggested Liam Gill start last week – he does still have trouble holding his ground in the face of the All Blacks clean-out.
Whether that means he requires more support from his backrow colleagues – and he does, based on what we saw in Sydney – or whether that means he needs to alter his body position, is something for Hooper and the Wallabies coaches to work out.
What doesn’t really require much debate is that we need to see more from numbers six and eight than what we saw from Hugh McMeniman and Ben Mowen. Both got in and did the unglamorous work that is so easy to miss, but they have both also shown a greater breakdown presence in Super Rugby this season.
Maybe it was a case of nerves of the occasion – Mowen was making his Bledisloe debut, and iPhones were not long out the last time McMeniman faced the Haka – but whatever it was, they both need to inject themselves into the game more than they did.
If there is a tweak to make here, perhaps you might start Scott Fardy for McMeniman, but it’s that close a thing the impact might be negligible.
Flyhalf will be another point of debate, with Matt Toomua finding out the hard way that the best defensive sides have very little problems with the ‘shovel-ball’ game he played in the first half.
Toomua is capable of well more than he showed in his debut outing, and he needs to trust those instincts and the hard work he’s done to win selection in the first place.
His vision and playmaking was a major reason why the Brumbies played on the last weekend of Super Rugby, and there’s no reason not to show that at Test level.
He did show more in the second half, as Scott Allen has highlighted in his analysis video today. After halftime, Toomua was more noticeably tracking forward before passing, rather than laterally or not at all in the first half.
The question for McKenzie then becomes one of whether Quade Cooper showed more in his 19 minutes than Toomua did in the 21 before being replaced. Cooper certainly ran more to the line again than Toomua did after the break, and even looked to ask more questions of the New Zealand defenders.
Cooper also combined a lot better with James O’Connor, who by that stage was playing at fullback after Jesse Mogg had been hooked following Conrad Smith’s try in the 51st minute, and this leads us to the next conundrum.
It’s already been mentioned that Israel Folau is being considered as a fullback option, but if that was truly the case, then surely he – and not O’Connor – should have gone to the back when Mogg was replaced.
It seems to me that if a change is going to be made in the 15 jersey, then it makes more sense to leave O’Connor there, even more so if Cooper does indeed regain the no.10.
However, moving O’Connor or Folau raises even more questions again.
Is it a case of a straight swap with one of the wingers? Does O’Connor’s kicking game and footwork in traffic trump the potential of Folau as a counter-attacking runner?
Does Mogg drop back to the bench and Tevita Kuridrani start? Would Kuridrani go straight into Adam Ashley-Cooper’s outside centre spot, or should the best 13 in Australia stay in the same position he’s played very well in all season?
If Mogg is left out completely, does Nick Cummins – a player I tried very hard last week to include in the starting backline – come in, or does McKenzie go with the only specialist left-winger in his squad in Joe Tomane?
And this just highlights how difficult a task McKenzie now has. Even with the All Blacks’ playmakers under injury clouds, with cover being brought in, the Wallabies remain up against it. To win the Bledisloe they must do something they’ve not done since 1986: win twice in New Zealand in the same year.
Are there benefits to be gained with some subtle tweaks to the side that played in Sydney, or would it only amount to change for change’s sake?