Ewen McKenzie: Australia's loss, Ireland's gain
April 4, 2013
Ewen McKenzie learned to relax in Paris © Getty Images
Ewen McKenzie in an Ireland team blazer? It will be a nice fit.
If the Irish Rugby Union (IRFU) hasn't yet offered McKenzie the head coaching position to replace Declan Kidney, they should act soon as he is a quality candidate with the expertise and streetwise nous to help Ireland win their first Six Nations tournament since 2009.
The 1991 IRB Rugby World Cup-winning prop has many assets; but some of the most crucial elements that ensure he is primed for the step up from the provincial ranks to the Test arena are that he has common sense, is highly intelligent, has a deep rugby knowledge, is an excellent communicator, reacts well to pressure, and ensures the players have a strong involvement in the process. He is not just a coach; he is a team coach, a factor for which countless players at Queensland Reds will readily vouch. He treats players as mature adults, not as a group to simply scream at.
He has also done the hard yards - including at Test coaching level. McKenzie was the assistant to Wallabies coach Eddie Jones between 2000 and 2003. Jones was a difficult, sometimes overly demanding, taskmaster, and he often gave McKenzie a tough time. But McKenzie, who can be sensitive to criticism, stuck to the task and was a loyal back-up. The Wallabies of that era respected McKenzie's diligence, work ethic and attention to detail. He always had their respect, not surprising for someone rated Australia's premier Test tight head prop. And Jones remains an avid fan of McKenzie's coaching abilities.
McKenzie also understands adversity and the dangers of rugby politics. His period with New South Wales Waratahs between 2004 and 2008 was difficult, dealing with a dysfunctional head office and several off-the-pace administrators at the troubled organisation. He learned to relax subsequently while coaching Stade Francais in 2008-2009; he embraced the Parisian lifestyle, was not so finicky about everything going on around him, became more composed, and through that evolved into a better coach.
And completely ignore the nonsensical statements of an Australian Rugby Union board member who said that he would not endorse McKenzie as a Wallabies coach because, as a front-rower, he knew nothing about backline play. That is myopic Mr Magoo nonsense. Just look at how the Reds and Waratahs have played under his reign. McKenzie has always embraced adventurous, well-constructed attacking football, particularly so with the Reds, with him enthusiastic to allow Quade Cooper, Digby Ioane and Will Genia their heads. This endorsement has made the Reds the entertainers of Australian rugby, and by far the most popular team of the five Australian provinces. Home crowds prove that. Several Wallabies have also said privately to ESPN Scrum that they would prefer playing for McKenzie than current Test coach Robbie Deans.
It is easy to understand why McKenzie is showing interest in the Ireland job, because the ARU has treated him so shabbily. For several years, McKenzie, who some seasons ago knocked back the Wallabies head coach position because he then didn't think he was experienced enough, has been the obvious successor to Deans. But now the ARU appears more interested in pushing Jake White, with even Michael Cheika moving up the totem pole. In Ireland, McKenzie will not arrive cold or misinformed. On the Ireland coaching staff is his close colleague Les Kiss; McKenzie and Kiss are long-time friends, having worked together for several seasons at the Waratahs. They form an excellent combination, having a high opinion of each other's abilities.
Australian rugby administrators have only themselves to blame if McKenzie, as expected, heads to Dublin, and Ireland will soon reap the benefits of the coach's magic.
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