Australian rugby
Wallabies return to the poisoned chalice
Greg Growden
August 14, 2013

Was that a fire alarm that deafened me when the Wallabies team schedule for the lead-up to the Wellington Test next week hit the in-basket?

Spending three days in Melbourne before heading across to New Zealand is certainly novel, but fraught with danger considering the night-owl antics of certain serial offending Wallabies. Remember the disruption during the British & Irish Lions series when James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale were photographed at a Melbourne fast food joint at 4am a few days before the second Test.

That stupid episode exposed yet again one of the core problems of the Wallabies outfit in recent years. Dumb behaviour had divided and disrupted an already wayward team. And now to return to the most recent scene of silliness just appears to be unnecessarily toying with the twilight zone. New Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie argues that changes of scenery are required to eradicate a Groundhog Day effect that has often clouded the Wallabies preparation during the Robbie Deans era and beyond.

While the life of a professional footballer sounds so exciting, often it is not. Endless meetings, monotonous training sessions, gym sessions, tight timetables, hours stuck in team buses and being confined to claustrophobic hotel rooms can soon become tedious. Varying training venues and the location of team camps are ways of keeping everyone more attentive.

Analysis from ESPNscrum

  • Key Player: It's been said for a few years that Will Genia would be the only Australian player picked in a theoretical trans-Tasman side; now the All Blacks are going through a transition at scrum-half themselves, Genia's influence in a Bledisloe contest has never been more important than it will be in 2013.
  • Rising Star: Brumbies loose-head prop Scott Sio, 21, is set to make his Test debut in Bledisloe I, after a mainstay of the Wallabies front-row, Benn Robinson, didn't survive the final trimming of the Wallabies squad. Sio has had big wraps on him in 2013, and he played a major role in the Brumbies' scrum success during the Super Rugby finals series.
  • Crunch Clash: The return Bledisloe Test in Wellington, on August 24, could either decide or square the series, and it provides the Wallabies the chance to escape the Eden Park hoodoo, and post their first win in New Zealand since winning 23-15 at Carisbrook, the original "House of Pain" in Dunedin in 2001.
  • Coaching Clinic: All eyes are on new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, who to his great credit is relishing the challenge of turning around the Wallabies' fortunes. It will be interesting to see how much of a honeymoon period McKenzie enjoys, and he will undoubtedly be keen to start his tenure with a win. It ia interesting to read that McKenzie is completely overhauling routines in a bid to create new winning methods.
  • Verdict: After McKenzie trimmed his initial 40-man squad to 30 late last week, the general positivity among supporters on social media and web forums was quite noticeable; that the general feeling was that a Wallabies squad had been assembled for the first time a good while on form rather than reputation. The sides in involved in the Super Rugby finals - the Brumbies and Queensland Reds - provided two-thirds of the final squad. Those same supporters are now praying it equates to success for the national side, too.

Fine in principal, but it does not camouflage the fact that one of McKenzie's most important tasks is to improve the Wallabies' team culture and bring harmony back to the senior group and the underlings. For too long, senior Wallabies players believed the young superstars in the squad have received preferential treatment from management, in particular, being allowed to get away with too many off-field indiscretions. Some episodes, such as missing team buses and meetings, ignoring team fines, sleeping through team announcements and also appearing centre-stage in ill-fitting suits at court appearances, are well chronicled; some involving altercations between players on overseas tours were effectively hushed-up.

Then, for Australian rugby officials to come out and call some of the miscreants "national treasures" made one feel bilious.

While McKenzie will receive breathing space before anyone gets finicky about the team's playing style, because no one really knows what tactics they will adopt, the Australian rugby public has lost patience with reckless player behaviour, and any more indiscretions will create a backlash. Wallabies ticket sales are already dropping off.

The photographs of O'Connor and Beale acting like dudes alongside a Lions supporter at a takeaway burger joint just before dawn was one episode too many. The punters are also tiring of supposedly contrite players getting behind a bank of microphones and saying they've matured, have learned their lesson and that they are "now better human beings".

It's great if that natural development actually occurs. However, more often than not, the same "better person" is - a short time later - forced to spurt out the same spiel after another mind-boggling indiscretion.

This week it was O'Connor's turn to tell the media that he had grown up. His message was: "I don't play rugby to be talked about off the field" and that he "had learnt from the past".This time, through the most brutal way possible - the savaging of the hip pocket - O'Connor may have actually learned something. To not be wanted by so many Australian provinces must jar even the healthiest of egos, and hopefully it convinces "Brand O'Connor" that his attitude has to improve, otherwise his monetary value as a player will plummet.

O'Connor is an interesting character. The most self-confident of individuals, he is so focused, so convinced he can do anything. Cocky? Yes, and that grates with others. When you talk to him, it becomes a stare-athon. Who can outdo the other, without turning away? O'Connor is good at it.

James O'Connor fronts the media ahead of the first Bledisloe Test

But his wary relationship with other players was exposed when the Rebels discarded him at the end of the Super Rugby season, and then the Force appeared somewhat reticent to take him back. Team-mates past and present didn't exactly come out to give O'Connor a big public bear hug. It is certainly a long time since the incumbent Wallabies Test No.10 has struggled to find a home.

Maybe McKenzie has decided to confront the behavioural problem head on by placing the team back in a city where they know exactly where all the good nightspots, fry-up joints and limbo sticks are situated. All the sinful temptations are just down the road from the Wallabies' team hotel. Or McKenzie might think there are worse Venus fly-traps in Sydney and Brisbane? Best, worst of all evils etc…

Whether they resist or not will be the initial guide as to whether McKenzie had made any progress in this important area. Then onto the party-all-night-long atmosphere of Courtenay Place in Wellington. Oh to be a team manager or coach!

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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