Ewen McKenzie and Michael Hooper have had differing paths to their respective roles in the Wallabies line-up.
The coach bided his time, learned his trade and has developed a style of rugby that he employs in a quest to achieve his goals.
His current captain, on the other hand, demanded selection in the team by his own form, but it took the departure of Ben Mowen to French rugby and the knee injury to Stephen Moore that has allowed the 22-year-old Hooper to be elevated to the role of Wallaby leader. But have they delivered as a captain-coach combination?
Australian rugby fans were enthused with the 3-0 defeat of a lacklustre French side in the June series. The Wallabies had maintained their form from the 2013 European Tour and treated their fans to a feast of running rugby, bar the Melbourne Test. Things had started well for McKenzie and Hooper.
The Rugby Championship offers a much sterner opposition than the touring French. McKenzie has not minced words in talking up the Wallabies when it comes to the All Blacks in particular with comments such as “We want them to bring their A game because we’re going to bring ours. That’s what it’s about.”
The reality is neither the Wallabies, nor McKenzie or Hooper are yet to bring their ‘A game’ against the World Champions, or a side that has the mettle to disrupt the McKenzie game plan.
As I reach for my block of chocolate, I ponder why.
Michael Hooper has performed tirelessly and at times tremendously as an open side flanker in this Rugby Championship, yet his leadership has been lacking. Hooper’s inability to rally his troops and make sound decisions at pivotal times in Auckland was also a factor in what turned out to be a grotesque Wallaby performance.
A leader needs to do more than just be an example. A leader must identify how the battlefield changes during a conflict, strike when the opportunity presents and maintain his sides focus at crucial times of the battle. Despite his playing heroics, Hooper has failed in these points.
He has died a hero’s death as a captain.
The choice not to take points in the rain soaked test against the All Blacks in Sydney was an error that will be reflected upon for some time as a lost opportunity. While I applaud Hooper’s bravery, he ran a fool’s errand with his decision-making as skipper at crucial times and distanced the Wallabies from victory as opposed from bringing them closer to it.
In moving onto Auckland, again despite being one of Australia’s better players on the park, Hooper failed to understand the dynamic and ebb and flow of the game at vital times that cost his side.
The game started with a near perfect kick off from Matt Toomua, the Wallabies challenged well and profited. Yet for reasons unknown there was a shift away from this tactic and I was flabbergasted to see the Wallabies seek out Brodie Retallick at the kick off.
This was a flawed illogical tactic, that as a skipper Hooper failed to check but his failures don’t end there.
When All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw was given 10 in the bin, we saw real leadership in action. At a time when the Wallabies should have taken the game away from the All Blacks the reverse happened.
Without their captain, senior members of the All Blacks like Read and Smith rallied their troops and ripped into the Wallabies. Hooper and his senior players were all at sea.
Despite Rob Simmons being then given 10 minutes himself, at no time did we see the Wallabies galvanise as a fighting unit in combat as their opponents had. If Hooper was trying to send a message to his men, they were not listening, or did not know how to as they lack the ability to concentrate under fire and act accordingly.
Ewen McKenzie sought the coaching role and must carry the previous failures of the Wallabies past to secure the Bledisloe Cup. He has contributed to this legacy through poor selections and decisions.
McKenzie has appointed a 22-year-old captain, yet starved him of some strong leadership figures to assist him when taking on top flight opposition. In hindsight I think James Horwill may have been a better choice than Simmons or Carter, purely due to his grunt.
Rod McQueen was right to seek out proven partnerships at provincial level and employ that to the Wallabies when possible in his reign. Yet McKenzie has chosen a scrum half without a running game, and a fly half who can’t orchestrate a back line with consistency.
A flawed illogical selection. What was wrong with the proven Waratahs partnership of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley?
The challenge now for Ewen McKenzie is to get his selections right that not only get his set piece stable, but gets his pack moving forward and his back line attacking more directly and from a flatter platform.
Furthermore McKenzie needs to select a couple of older heads to support Hooper is his decision making. I would look to bring both Scott Higginbotham and James Horwill into the starting line up this weekend, with Scott Fardy to make way for the Melbourne Rebels skipper.
7. Hooper (C)
14. Ashley-Cooper (VC)