Ruck'n Maul
McKenzie puts Tahs offside over Skelton
Greg Growden
September 25, 2014
Ewen McKenzie's comments on Will Skelton and Benn Robinson have left Greg Growden bemused

The relationship between important Wallabies and New South Wales Waratahs staff members has not been helped by recent comments from Test coach Ewen McKenzie. It is easy to rile the Waratahs. All you have to do is suggest their level of fitness is a bit suspect, and the Tahs will react.

For some time, having a dig at the Waratahs' level of conditioning was justified. NSW players had a reputation for falling off at the end of matches, and other Australian conference provinces have taken advantage of that by running away with games in the final minutes.

But now that accusation cannot be leveled at the Waratahs. One of Michael Cheika's prime focuses since taking over as head coach last year was to flog the players until they were fit. And his often-tortuous approach has worked. The Waratahs were the best finishers of the 2014 Super Rugby tournament, as shown by their title triumph.

So when McKenzie said that Will Skelton had been left out of the Wallabies' touring party for South Africa and Argentina so that he could build up his fitness in the National Rugby Championship, Tahs officials became agitated. Cheika made it known through the media he wasn't impressed, making the point that Wallabies' training camps should be used to maintain players' fitness levels.

Will Skelton's fitness has been questioned by Ewen McKenzie © Getty Images
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"If training camps aren't for training then what are they for," Cheika queried, adding that he was unhappy Skelton's fitness levels had been publicly raised. It's not just Tahs officials who believed that Skelton should be in South Africa. Many rugby followers cannot fathom why such a promising player was left behind, especially as he is the type of aggressive forward that could worry the Springboks and Pumas. Also, several valuable weeks where Skelton could have had the benefit of learning from his peers while on the road has been wasted.

As confounding was McKenzie's admission that Waratahs prop Benn Robinson had been on the outer this season because he had not grasped the new scrum laws fast enough. Robinson did grasp the laws fast enough to be part of a Super Rugby final-winning team.

Pulver's excuses for Wallabies simple don't rate

There was also a lot of rolling of the eyes among the troops when Australian Rugby Union chief Bill Pulver tried to explain why public interest in the Wallabies slumped badly after another Bledisloe Cup failure. The explanation included blame diversion. Pulver said he had "inherited a program" which involved back-to-back All Blacks games at the start of the Rugby Championship, that saw the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship hopes disintegrate in just over a week, and with it a massive drop in interest in the game, including diminishing crowd figures.

ARU CEO Bill Pulver larks around  during the 2013 Australian Super Rugby launch at Sketch, Central Pier, Melbourne, February 13, 2013
Bill Pulver's 'mumbo jumbo' has left Greg Growden mystified © Getty Images
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Instead Pulver wants to rotate Tests. This mumbo jumbo must be tossed in the "brain-dead" category. What next? Will Pulver plead at the next SANZAR meeting for an easy start to the Rugby Championship because the Wallabies aren't up to it? Maybe even get the All Blacks to offer the Wallabies a points start? Playing the All Blacks straight after the Waratahs' Super Rugby championship this season was perfect for Australian Rugby. Through the New South Wales victory, the code in Australia was on its biggest high in years, and here was the chance to take advantage of it, especially as New Zealand suddenly appeared vulnerable.

However the Wallabies weren't up to the task, wasting the perfect chance to beat the All Blacks in Sydney due to dumb decisions and then falling apart in Auckland. The punters losing interest in the Wallabies had nothing to do with "inherited programs". The only way the Wallabies are going to win back the heartland is for officials to stop looking for scapegoats and instead focus on what is really important to be number one … getting their act together on and off the field and that involves relishing the chance to take the hard road. Good organisations handle any type of schedule, no matter how tough or easy. Mediocre ones look for excuses. Rotating games won't make any difference.

Clarke's return to HQ ruffles feathers

While the Australian Rugby Union spin doctors waxed lyrical about the return of Rob Clarke to the St Leonards bunker, not all were ecstatic that the former Brumbies and recent Melbourne Rebels boss is back at HQ. It is well known that numerous influential Sydney club and Queensland officials don't exactly have a glowing opinion of Clarke, who has been brought in after Andrew Fagan opted to move to the Adelaide Crows AFL organisation. His return has even irked one very ambitious ARU official, who believes Clarke will be a serious threat to his own plans for greater power in the local game.

The appointment is bound to put even more pressure on Pulver, because opposition is building. As one high-ranking contact told Ruck'n Maul: "Certain people at the ARU might want to start studying their contracts, because the knives are out." And Clarke's role in running the troubled NRC will be very tough, especially with two of the better franchises already signaling they do not want to be part of it next season.

Back to the rat race

The Ratty mascot saga continues. A highlight of the NRC season has been following the escapades of the Warringah Rats mascot who was desperate to win the inaugural mascot race organised by the North Harbour Rays. Ratty became an internet sensation after a video was shown on ESPNscrum.com of the first mascot race a few weeks ago at Brookvale Oval when he lost the race after straining his hamstring during the final stretch after his pants fell down.

The return race was held last weekend, with the entrants now down to two - a showdown between Ratty and Tah Man, who this time turned up with suit intact. The two other contestants - Mac Warrior and The Highlander - were late withdrawals. Mac Warrior rang in saying he was tired and emotional after being part of Conception Day at Macquarie University, while the Highlander pulled out because his kilt was at the dry cleaners following Scottish Referendum celebrations.

Yet again there was drama, as this time around Ratty, who played to the crowd by wearing his red underpants ala Superman style outside his suit, was disqualified. After complaints that Ratty had taken advantage of a false start, Tah Man attempted to get back into contention by trying to tackle his opponent during the second leg. Ratty wasn't impressed with that, throwing a football at Tah Man in disgust. Ratty then scampered off to finish the race well ahead of Tah Man. However the judges gave the race to Tah Man, because Ratty didn't finish the race as required with football in hand.

Whispers of the Week

- International Rugby Board boss Bernard Lapasset be warned. A notable Australian official is after your position, and his far from secret campaign even has New Zealand support. Several people have been sounded out about taking the Australian's local position, opening the way for higher honours.

- The ARU witch-hunt continues with staff emails checked to work out who is leaking from St Leonards HQ. A previous ARU regime did the same, only to discover that the chief leaker to the media was one of its most senior officials. Ooops.

- A high-ranking Waratahs official is in his final months. December 31, 2014 is likely to be his Tah-Tah date.

- Two notable Sydney players who recently entered the coaching ranks are involved in a lengthy suspension due to sideline shenanigans. The ranks have really clammed up over this one, but it will come out, and the names will lead to headlines.

- Spectators at an NRC game were surprised last weekend to see two well-known officials - after a lengthy booze up following the match - jump into a car and take off. They must have been hoping there were no RBT units on the way home.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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