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NSW Rugby Union chief executive Jim L’Estrange insists it is “very premature” to say Waratahs assistant coach Todd Louden will replace Ewen McKenzie next year.
L’Estrange today confirmed McKenzie’s contract would not be renewed at the completion of the 2008 Super 14 season, even if NSW won the title. The announcement ends months of speculation about the embattled coach’s future at the Waratahs.
Both parties agreed the decision was mutual, with McKenzie saying the time was right to move on “and actually grow somewhere else and do something different”.
“I don’t have this romantic notion that I’m entitled to be here forever,” said the Waratahs’ longest-serving and most successful Super rugby coach.
“I always think of myself as a steward and my stewardship’s been longer than others.
“It’s been very good, very profitable. Win, lose or draw this season, I think it’s time.”
After steering NSW to the final in 2005 and semi-finals in 2006, the last season and a half of McKenzie’s five-year tenure has been trying to say the least.
The Waratahs finished 13th in 2007 and, despite winning four of their first six matches so far, their 2008 campaign has been dogged by ongoing criticism of their apparent lack of enterprise.
McKenzie likened the media frenzy over the past month to a “shark attack” and admitted “something needed to give”.
And it was McKenzie. Now the hunt is on for a new coach, with the NSW board to appoint an independent panel to decide on his successor.
Louden is the favourite, somewhat ironically given he is the current NSW attacks coach and a lack of attack is what all the fuss has been about, but L’Estrange said he was anything but over the line.
“I have had a lot of interest. I am looking forward to meeting everyone and anyone who shows an interest in the role,” L’Estrange said.
Working in Louden’s favour is his CV, which includes helping the South African-based Bulls to last year’s Super 14 title.
The board is also aware of the NSW players’ frustrations at — until last Friday night against the Cheetahs — not being able to implement Louden’s attacking game plans because of the wet weather.
Equally, the board is mindful of the importance of employing a coach with an ability not only to devise tactics but also serve as an off-field leader, qualities which helped McKenzie to succeed for the most part.
The Auckland Blues’ Australian coach David Nucifora has also been linked to the job, but it is understood he has not impressed the right people at the Waratahs.
Nucifora will be in town on Saturday night trying to put a major dent in NSW’s title hopes when the Blues tackle the Waratahs at the SFS.
“I’d certainly like to have a cup of coffee. That would be nice,” L’Estrange said, adding to the intrigue.
Determined to now channel all his energy towards getting the Waratahs to the playoffs, rather than be bogged down in speculation about his future, McKenzie said he was happy to stay out of the recruitment process.
“If NSW ask my opinion, I am happy to give my opinion,” he said.
“But I also understand they are looking for a new direction, so I am possibly not entitled to have a full opinion.”
McKenzie, though, did believe coaching the Waratahs — the highest-profile of the four Australian Super 14 franchises — was “not a place for the faint-hearted”.
“I would say, and without telling Jim what to do in terms of recruitment, that you’re going to need a special person to do this job,” he said.
“I’ve done it longer, so I think I’ve got a pretty fair idea what it takes. I’ve got thicker skin than when I started.
“It takes a lot out of you. It’s an energy-sapping job but a fantastic challenge.
“The reason I took the job at the start was I believe it’s the biggest challenge in Australian rugby.”
Ewen McKenzie’s Super rugby coaching record at the NSW Waratahs:
2004 Super 12: 7th (5 wins, 6 losses)
2005 Super 12: 2nd (10 wins, 3 losses) – lost final 35-25 to Crusaders
2006 Super 14: 3rd (9 wins, 5 losses) – lost semi-final 16-14 to Hurricanes
2007 Super 14: 13th (3 wins, 1 draw, 9 losses)
2008 Super 14: 8th after seven rounds (4 wins, 2 losses, 1 bye)
Total win-draw-loss record: 31-1-25