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True test is turning winning into success

Dual role: Ewen McKenzie must win hearts and minds as well as games. Photo: Marco Del GrandeSteve Hansen rarely misses. After seeing off his former Crusaders associate Robbie Deans, who was as easily provoked as a petrified tree stump, the All Blacks coach has been flinging everything he has at Ewen McKenzie.

”Mentally challenged” by the five-eighth dilemma, feeling the ”pressure” to produce in his first Test, and battling to ”trust” the players he relied on in Queensland were the best of the barbs thrown out by Hansen this week.

Problem is, the new Wallabies coach has his eye on a bigger prize.

There is a large drinking receptacle to win back during the next fortnight, sure. The Bledisloe Cup, or its decade-long absence, is the thorn in the side of Australian rugby and McKenzie feels it more than most.

But winning isn’t everything, McKenzie asserts. More accurately, it doesn’t guarantee success. In his 10-year absence from the Wallabies coaching set-up, the former town planner-turned-Test prop has watched rugby move perilously close to niche status in the pantheon of Australian sport.

So while Hansen can heap on the pressure, it’s not the sort that McKenzie responds to.

”I’ve seen how the machine works, I understand that results are important and you never get away from that,” he says two days before his first team runs out at ANZ Stadium.

”But that’s the rugby success and I think success takes different forms at different stages and it is wider than just winning. I’m interested in winning games but I’m also interested in the game being a success against its competitors in Australia and that’s a battle that has to be fought on many fronts. Winning helps, clearly, but you still have to turn those wins into success.”

Many a well-intentioned administrator has tried to ”save” rugby, but coaches have not always had to pre-occupy themselves with winning hearts and minds as well as games. It appears to be a dimension to modern coaching that is here to stay where rugby in Australia is concerned.

”I know where rugby sits at the moment and I’m very interested in that,” McKenzie says. ”I think my job is wider than coaching a team, I think it’s more about influencing the landscape. I have a genuine rugby task on the weekend but I’m also interested in the other parts and being able to influence the game nationally.”

A good, hard dent in the All Blacks’ ego wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

McKenzie believes he is better equipped than most to make that happen, having coached the Reds to solid success against the New Zealand Super Rugby sides, played and beat them as a Wallaby and been part of Australia’s last Bledisloe Cup win in 2002.

He has started by dismantling the myth. One by one, the McKenzie-coached Wallabies have talked about the All Blacks as Super Rugby players from New Zealand this week. ”History is history,” captain James Horwill said of the sides’ Test ledger over the years. Come game time, Jesse Mogg might be visualising winger Ben Smith in his blue and green Highlanders jersey as he flies in for the tackle.

”The emotional piece is there, that’s inevitable, but you have to keep part of it pragmatic,” McKenzie says. ”There’s no escaping you have some of the best players in the world running around opposite you but we do play against them often and that’s worked out favourably for us many times.”

Recent history says McKenzie might pull it off on Saturday night. Former coaches Deans, John Connolly and Rod Macqueen came out winners after their first Test matches, while Bob Dwyer and Eddie Jones felt the dead weight of pressure from the final bell.

”Come late Saturday night something will have happened and people will be commenting but that cycle goes on,” McKenzie says. ”And regardless of what happens on Saturday night there’s another big game a week later. I’ve learnt that much. If you accept the responsibility you have to take the good and bad; all you can do is back your methods and approach.”

There are always friends like Hansen, ready to land a blow. British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, back in the chair at the Welsh Rugby Union, will have a few trademark, soft-spoken slapdowns ready in the European autumn, too.

McKenzie knows it’s lonely at the top. After building and executing one hell of a game plan to land himself the plum Wallabies job, delivering is his only option.

”I got a nice letter from [Springboks coach] Heineke Meyer the other day congratulating me on the job,” McKenzie says. ”Heineke and I go way back, it’s an interesting journey for all of the guys in different positions. It’s not an easy life but at the end of the day you don’t have to do it, you don’t have to put your hand up for it. If you do put your hand up for it you just have to do it.”

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McKenzie takes gamble on Cooper off the bench

A few days before the third Test between the Wallabies and the British and Irish Lions, I chatted with Graham Henry, the great All Blacks coach. I suggested that accurate selection goes 90 per cent of the way to ensuring a winning coach. Henry pondered on my assertion, and then told me: ”Spiro, I would make good selecting about 75 per cent in achieving success as a coach.”

Henry went on to praise Warren Gatland for his shrewdness and bravery in dumping Brian O’Driscoll and opting for the big Welsh centres, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. British rugby writers were so hostile to this selection that they predicted the end of Gatland’s coaching career if the Lions were defeated. It is part of rugby history now that the big Welsh centres monstered the smaller Wallabies backs. 75 out of 75 for Gatland.

And, it is also part of rugby history that Robbie Deans, generally a shrewd selector, made a selection error in continuing to play James O’Connor as the Wallabies number 10 in the last Lions Test. Greg Martin even suggested that Deans was somehow playing the Trojan Horse for New Zealand rugby in not selecting Quade Cooper. The Wallaby squad to play the All Blacks on Saturday night at ANZ Stadium was announced at 3.30pm on Thursday. And, astonishingly, Cooper was in the squad but relegated to the subs bench. Given the fact that Ewen McKenzie’s campaign to become Wallaby coach was based on a Quade-led revival, this was a selection gamble in the Gatland class of risk.

The starting five-eighth is Matt Toomua. The theory is that Toomua will take the initial pressure from the All Blacks and when the game opens up then Cooper will come on to run the visitors ragged with his outrageously brilliant plays and ploys. The suggestion was also made that this left-field selection will ”shock” the All Blacks who have been preparing to apply pressure on Cooper at the beginning of the Test.

The NZ Herald published an interview with the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen on Thursday, just hours before McKenzie’s bombshell announcement, where he predicted Toomua’s selection and also that the Wallaby backs would play a Brumbies-type rush defence to put the All Blacks under pressure. So much for the surprise element.

The other interesting selection in McKenzie’s first Wallaby side is his front five: James Slipper, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander, Rob Simmons and James Horwill. Moore and Horwill are the only strong scrummers in this unit. When he was asked about the new scrum regulations that de-power the hit and require more scrumming technique from players, McKenzie said at his media conference that the scrum was only part of the game and that he looked for other things from his props in general play.

The experienced Benn Robinson, a strong scrumming prop, has been dropped from the squad because his play around the field is not effective.

The All Black selectors have gone the other way with their front row. They have discarded Dane Coles, a hooker who plays with the verve of a flanker, and selected two veterans, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock. Luke Romano is in the second row ahead of Brodie Retallick because, as Hansen explained, Romano had played last week’s practice games against Wellington and Canterbury.

The inference here is that the All Blacks expect scrums to be physically torrid affairs.

McKenzie has picked an exciting squad, despite the fears about the toughness of the front five. There are five uncapped players in it. One of them, Toomua, is a starter. There are 10 Brumbies, a reward for that team’s splendid season in defeating the Lions and almost defeating the Chiefs in the Super Rugby final. There are some strong runners in the forwards. The side has enough pace and strength in the back four to trouble even the formidable All Blacks defence.

I would give McKenzie 70 out of 75 for the selection of his squad. Scott Sio, the best scrumming prop in Australian, should be a starter. But the other crucial 25 points, which relate to the implementation of the game plan, will be decided on Saturday night.

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Highs and lows, cheers and boos – all part of the demanding job

Bob Dwyer: July 4, 1982, v Scotland, Brisbane Scotland 12 def Wallabies 7

One of my most vivid recollections of that Test was the sad memory of a Queensland rugby crowd booing the Wallabies as they ran on the pitch because of the inclusion of [Randwick players] Mark and Glen Ella and the exclusion of [local heroes] Paul McLean and Roger Gould, which was sad in the extreme. I can’t remember being nervous but what I can remember on reflection was that I certainly tried to do too much too soon. Back then three days was all you had for your Test preparation with the team, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I probably didn’t prepare the team well. The Wallabies forward pack who were all Queenslanders were outplayed by Scotland but perhaps a major contributing factor to that was that they were worn out from the practice. In the preparation for the second Test, I was much, much lighter with the forwards in their preparation and in fact gave them one day off and concentrated on the backs. I was a bit naive and thought I could change the world in three days and I found out you couldn’t.

Rod Macqueen: November 1, 1997, v Argentina, Beunos Aires Wallabies 23 def Pumas 15

It was probably tougher that my first Test as Wallabies coach was an away game. Having said that, it was against Argentina and not the All Blacks. But the reality is we lost the next Test and losing that next one probably contributed more to the thinking and direction of the side than the first Test did, because it pointed out a lot of the frailties in our game plan and team. It also showed me how fine the line is between looking for longer term achievement and the more immediate goal of beating the opposition. A lot of the things we were concentrating on in Argentina were the part of the long term project and had I had the time again I might have concentrated a bit more on winning that second Test than thinking too far ahead. You’re always nervous leading into these matches but you have to try to keep that out of it. Your role is to be as calm as possible and make decisions that are actually going to help the team. The team knows if they’re losing at half-time, what you have to tell them is what they have to do to win.

Eddie Jones: July 28, 2001, v Springboks, Loftus Versfeld Springboks 20 def Wallabies 15

It was a difficult time because players had just come off the Lions series, the players were reasonably tired and there was a change in coach. John Eales had told me that week that he was going to retire at the end of the series, so it was an interesting week trying to get the team up for the game while knowing myself that their captain was on his way out.

The only thing that changes as national coach is after the game. If you win, it’s fantastic but if you lose, everyone knows about it and the pressure is enormous. The South Africa, New Zealand and England jobs are the only ones that have as much pressure on them as the Australian job. Over our Test history, we’ve averaged a 52 per cent win rate so you’re going to lose four out of every 10 games. That’s a reality you have to deal with. Then there’s the media pressure and the pressure you find from people outside. You lose your personal life over that period.

John Connolly: June 11, 2006, v England, Telstra Stadium Wallabies 34 def England 3

We met a really experienced England side in this Test. Since taking over the coaching we’d spent a lot of time discussing where Australia was at. The same side had played for a number of years, they were getting older and we knew we had to make some hard decisions. We’d lost seven or eight games in a row if I remember correctly so we thought we couldn’t do the same thing again. We changed the whole front row, bringing in Rodney Blake, Greg Holmes and Tai McIsaac. We stayed out at Homebush the night before and I remember watching those three walking around in shorts and thongs the day of the match thinking ‘I am sure people don’t realise this is the Australian front row’. It’s always important to win. Practising losing is not fun at all. You make decisions about how you’re going to play the game … but it is very different when you are running the whole show. You have the final say on everything, the buck stops with you.

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Tuqiri not ready to bow out yet as return looms

Lote Tuqiri will play his first NRL game in over a year when Wests Tigers take on the Sydney Roosters on Monday night and, despite the uncertainty of his future, the veteran declared it will not be his last game.

The 33-year-old winger has not played for the joint-venture club since breaking his arm against the Bulldogs in round 18 last season. His time away from the field has made him determined not to leave the game quietly.

Tuqiri said on Friday he believes he still has a lot to offer the Tigers and plans to play beyond this season.

He still doesn’t know which club that will be with as his contract with the Tigers is yet to be renewed.

”It’s not going to be my swansong, I’m going to keep playing. Where that will be, I don’t know, but it definitely won’t be my swansong,” Tuqiri said. ”I wanted to go out on my terms. I’ve had a pretty good career but, obviously, the last couple of years have been pretty tough for me injury-wise. I knew I had something to give, something to offer to this footy team. If I didn’t, I would have given up by now.”

The early months after his near career-ending injury tested his willingness to continue playing. Tuqiri admits the prospect of the curtains closing on his playing days was difficult to face.

The thought of hanging up his boots crossed his mind on more than one occasion but the support of his teammates and his two young children gave him the mental strength to return to the field.

”You don’t see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. You start questioning the motivation and when you get up for training, it’s 7am and it’s really cold, you think you might as well stay home today,” Tuqiri said. ”It’s been pretty dark I must admit. The last month we have not been able to get near the finals but, other than that, the boys have been really good. When I go home its just the same because I’ve got two young boys. You can’t afford to be down. They make it a hell of a lot easier to be around.”

Tuqiri will start on the left wing on Monday night in place of the injured Marika Koroibete.

Meanwhile, the Tigers horrid run of form has detracted the spectacle of Braith Anasta playing against his former team. The veteran player said he was too consumed with changing his club’s fortunes to take notice of a match-up against the Roosters.

After seven seasons with the Tricolours, Anasta will take on his former club for the first time in a competitive match but hasn’t given the occasion much thought due to the stress of the Tigers five-match losing streak

”I can’t really look beyond our backyard here at the moment cos we’re doing it tough and we’re playing the best team in the comp,” Anasta said.

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Russia’s stance should come as no surprise

Dinkus of Darren Kane in Sydney.16th August 2013Photo: Janie Barrett Photo: Janie Barrett JEMLaw is not a science. Its practice involves the dark art of answering vexed questions: just as it is a compelling proposition that the AFL must bear its formidable teeth at Essendon for its alleged role in marking this year as the sport’s annus horribilis lest the integrity of the competition be tarnished; in equal measure it seems premature and unusual to seek to sanction James Hird, or anyone else, absent finalising the very investigation that serves as the evidentiary bedrock for the charges laid.

Playing devil’s advocate, and taking up unpopular or absurd arguments, do however have their limits. In an effective reversal of its 1993 decriminalisation of homosexuality, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his final assent earlier this year to a raft of new national laws including establishing unfettered powers for police to arrest and detain tourists and foreign nationals suspected of being homosexual or ”pro-gay”; introducing a deliberately imprecise prohibition against the distribution of ”propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors (thus federalising the laws already enacted in parts of Russia as early as 2006); and placing a blanket ban on the adoption of orphans by Russian gay couples or any person from any country in which marriage equality exists.

The Russian government has in recent weeks most helpfully clarified that it will apply these new regulations during the 2014 Winter Olympics, and hence will not hesitate to arrest anybody suspected of violating the laws.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has, perhaps in his own inimitable way, sought to temper any fears in saying ”an athlete of non-traditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi”.

Looked through any prism, Russia’s laws are a throwback to wicked Stalinist policy. This toxicity is though viciously amplified by the illumination of the sporting spotlight. These are heady times for Russia as an international host.

Moscow is now hosting the athletics world championships, which conclude on Sunday. Since hosting rights were awarded to Sochi in 2007, Putin has spent a mere $52 billion preparing to host the world’s best winter athletes next year. In five years’ time, Russia plays host to the FIFA World Cup.

Outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge has in recent weeks and by equal measure both sought that Russia clarify what its laws mean, and lamented that the regulations pose more of an interpretation issue than anything else.

Rogge is adamant the laws will have no effect on the Games, as if such a reassurance is an antidote to the problem. Alas, the power of gentle words and quiet diplomacy to quell absurdity and the fear the parents of young athletes might harbour for the safety of their children competing in Sochi.

There is utility in the IOC reminding itself of its own Olympic Charter, which operates as the constitutional spine of the Olympic movement, the constituency of which includes both the Russian Olympic committee and the Sochi organising committee. In the quintessential motherhood statement, the Charter’s fundamental goal is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

The Charter codifies principles that include the right of each individual to practice sport free from discrimination of any kind, such prejudice of whatever kind expressed as being incompatible with belonging to the movement.

For each city awarded the right to host an Olympic Games, the Charter requires the national government of that country to submit to the IOC a legally-binding instrument undertaking and guaranteeing that the country, and its public authorities, comply with and respect the Olympic Charter.

The IOC retains the right, at any time and without recourse to compensation, to withdraw the right of a city to organise and host an Olympics in the event of non-compliance with the Charter or any other IOC regulation or instruction.

If you can quote the rules, you can obey them. How the IOC handles matters, between now and February, will be illustrative as to whether the Olympic Charter is just empty rhetoric. Russia’s legal position sits in hopeless conflict with the undertakings given to the IOC.

Hollow promises that nobody is banned from Sochi, or even that the laws will not apply to Olympic athletes and spectators so long as they behave, fail to address the central abhorrence of the laws per se.

The invidious reality though is that any step by the IOC to move the Games, or by nations or individual athletes to boycott Sochi, will probably have an impact analogous to that of both the boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics by individual Jewish athletes, and the refusal of more than 50 nations to take part in the USSR’s 1980 Moscow Games.

Neither stance had any real influence on the perverse policies of the Third Reich or on Soviet foreign policy in Afghanistan. Although the impending Games has served to focus attention on Russian domestic policy, the real issue is far wider than mere guarantees over non-disruption of the Olympics and how Russia’s laws affect those attending the Games.

After the Games, the 7000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, the world’s media, the volunteers and all the spectators all have to go home, perhaps to a place where the laws are even more medieval. The unfortunate, unfathomable truth is that Russia is hardly a lone wolf state.

Dotted around the globe is a veritable United Nations of more than 75 jurisdictions where it is, in essence, illegal to be gay. Places as diverse in culture as Barbados, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Qatar and Malaysia; whose laws prescribe penalties including jail, corporal punishment and death. The IAAF’s Senegalese president Lamine Diack has this past week gently suggested that the Russian laws demand ”respect”. In Senegal, homosexuality is a crime.

Has Putin taken the IOC by surprise? In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed the first resolution approved by any UN body on the human rights of homosexuals and minority groups. The vote of the 47 member states passed the resolution by a narrow majority. Two of the UN Council members were Russia and Senegal. Guess how they voted.

Darren Kane is a sports lawyer based in Sydney.

Twitter: @sportslawyer7

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