The Growden Report
One down, more to go at the ARU
Greg Growden
October 20, 2014

About half-an-hour after the Wallabies lost to the All Blacks in excruciating circumstances, and Adam Ashley-Cooper had just finished his on-field 100th Test cap celebrations, Ewen McKenzie stood in the middle of the dressing room to address the players.

According to observers, his message was short, sharp and direct. A visibly shaking McKenzie said in a quivering voice that due to the 'bigger picture' he had taken the decision to resign, informing the ARU that morning. He told the players he had been deliberating over whether to quit for some time, and knew 'it was time to move on.'

"I wish you the best, because you do have huge potential."

After his address which went for around two minutes, the players gave him a round of applause, shook his hand while several hugged him. McKenzie about turned and left the room. The Wallabies players were stunned. In the words of one: 'We were gobsmacked.' Another said: 'He (McKenzie) looked deeply shattered….but he held himself together well."

Thus ended McKenzie's connection with a playing group, which some months ago lost its faith in him. As any coach knows, if the players are against you, you're doomed.

In spite of the endless denials from the Australian Rugby Union, McKenzie had been at odds with numerous Wallabies players for some time. The first signs of dissent occurred during last year's end-of-season European tour.

As revealed in ESPNscrum in recent months, Wallaby team harmony began to collapse even before the Dublin drinking affair, when a group of players were publicly exposed. Earlier in that tour, players were told by team officials that they had to be 'either with us or against us, and if you're against us, you won't be picked.'

This basically told the players you either had to be with McKenzie or you would be perceived as being against him- and those detractors would be either isolated or discarded. The Dublin drinking episode then saw the squad fragment, with some underwhelmed that teammates may have been involved in 'outing' others.

The playing group were also concerned by Wallabies business manager Di Patston's increasing influence, and how she was involved in so many areas of the team's preparation. Several players admitted to being intimidated by Patston, while her relationship with several ARU staff members was fragile. Key players said they were not enjoying Wallaby training camps. One in particular has been deeply unimpressed with the lack of support he had received from the ARU- including during the Super Rugby season.

The ARU are searching for a new coach to take the Wallabies to Europe

Some players even nicknamed Patston "Cruella' as in Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmations.

The friction continued during the domestic Test series and the Rugby Championship, with the final eruption occurring when Kurtley Beale and Patston had an altercation on the flight between South Africa and Argentina. Then emerged damning text messages allegedly sent some months earlier by Beale to Patston.

In recent days, McKenzie also lost the support of a crucial ARU board member, who had originally championed his appointment. Another ARU powerbroker has been anti-McKenzie for some time, and so in recent weeks the coach has been basically 'dead man walking.'

There is now uncertainty whether McKenzie or Patston- no longer ARU staff members- will have any involvement in Beale's disciplinary hearing this week. It is understood that the Beale camp has 'sensational' damning evidence about one of the messages, which could even destabilise the ARU.

There was for a time also the serious threat of several players putting their contracts at risk by going on record about 'months of provocation' from ARU officials. It was also patently clear on Saturday night that the players had taken control of the Wallabies game plan. It appeared they were not playing for McKenzie or the Australian Rugby Union, but were motivated by their own personal pride. As well, they did not want to let down one of Australian Rugby's most admired players- Ashley-Cooper.

Ashley-Cooper is at the heart of soul of the Wallabies machine. He is revered as the ultimate team man. He has no enemy in the Wallaby player camp; instead respected by all. So we saw a vigorous effort, which was reminiscent of so many Waratahs matches this season. As with numerous Waratahs home games in Sydney this year, the Wallabies went for all-out attack, with midfield kicking a no-no.

The only box kick occurred when Nic White came onto the field in the second half, and it immediately led to problems. Before then, the Wallabies kept the ball in hand, played at high pace, with expression, while their play at the breakdown involved immense passion. This plan came so close to succeeding.

In spite of McKenzie's departure, the relationship between some Test players and ARU officials remains troubled. ARU chief executive Bill Pulver in particular has lost the confidence of several important players. Another recently appointed ARU official has meanwhile upset staff by describing them as 'children' in an email, which was accidentally sent to an influential provincial official.

Ewen McKenzie resigns from the Wallabies coaching position

Players are known to be upset by leaked newspaper stories that Wallabies captain Michael Hooper may require counseling following his concerted defence of Beale. There are concerns at Wallabies level that two ARU board members may have been behind these leaks, though cleverly distancing themselves in the reports.

Serious questions at provincial level are now also being asked of those who appointed Pulver, in particular ARU chairman Michael Hawker and board member John Eales.

Provincial officials are complaining that during Pulver's reign, Australian Rugby has lurched from one disaster to the next, and they have grown tired of him repeatedly blaming anyone but himself. This includes him blaming the previous ARU regime for the body's poor financial position, and even the Wallabies Rugby Championship draw. While numerous players are extremely wary of Pulver, they also know he is providing a barrier for Michael Cheika taking over as Australian coach. Cheika's lack of support for Pulver is well known among the players.

Not helping Pulver's predicament is deep concern that FoxSport will not telecast the NRC next year due to dreadful ratings- with viewer numbers sometimes struggling to make five figures. Without FoxSport support, the NRC- Pulver's baby- is doomed.

Pulver also irritated many at Australian provincial level by on Saturday night criticising the media and the public for their supposed involvement in McKenzie's demise.

In an extraordinary attack, Pulver said: "As somebody who is basically the custodian of this game, and really responsible for upholding the core values of the game - passion, integrity, discipline, respect and solidarity - what's happened to Ewen over the last two weeks I think is extremely disappointing."

"The attack on Ewen was relentless. It left him with the view he couldn't continue in the role because it was too far back for him to achieve the level of respect in the playing group. I am disappointed in the Australian public.

"I am talking about the media primarily. The commentary has been unfounded and unfair."

Pulver's sermon prompted one powerful provincial powerbroker to remark last night: "If he [Pulver] is the supposed custodian of this code, and the Australian game is in such a mess, then there's only one natural course. He must go. Depart now."

McKenzie is meanwhile expected to head off to the family's farm in Victoria to contemplate his future.

Bill Pulver faces the media © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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