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.
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”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.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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