The parallels between Ewen McKenzie’s ascension to the Wallaby team as a player in the early 90s and his taking of the reigns as coach in 2013 are spooky. On both occasions, Australia had recently been dispatched by the Lions, and on both occasions the Australian rugby universe was all too aware of the hold their trans-Tasman rivals had over them.
McKenzie was part of a young squad that turned the tables around in the early 90s, winning consecutive Bledisloe Cups and then triumphing at the 1991 World Cup. In his quest to turn those tables once again, McKenzie has sought out players unsullied by memories of past All Black drubbings, just as he and his compatriots were back then. Much trust has been put, quite rightly, in the Brumbies squad that came so close to claiming the Super Rugby title, with youngsters Tevita Kuridrani, Scott Sio and Matt Toomua amongst the most impressive of the uncapped names in this squad.
Ben Mowen, another Brumbie, was one of the players of the season in Super Rugby and showed superbly well for the Wallabies during the Lions series, as did midfield playmaker and kicker Christian Leali’ifano. If the latter can build a relationship with the experienced Adam Ashley-Cooper outside him, a genuinely world-class midfield partnership could gel.
Will Genia is the first name on any teamsheet he is in consideration for, but who partners him at half-back is far less clear-cut. The expectation was that panto-villain Quade Cooper will be given a chance to redeem himself under club coach McKenzie, but the aforementioned Toomua and the quietly impressive Bernard Foley will be waiting in the wings should he slip up. Indeed, rumours emanating from the Australian media suggest the new head coach is set to spring a surprise and leave out Cooper, plumping instead for Toomua. Given the former’s propensity for going missing in the biggest games – not to mention NZ’s probable assumption that he would be playing – it could be a very shrewd move.
There is no dearth of creativity in this team. Genia, Cooper, Leali’ifano, O’Connor, Folau – these are the names that so often dazzle out on the pitch. Finding the right combination, however, is a lot more difficult, and there is always cause for the Adam Ashley-Coopers and Jesse Moggs of this world, with their defensive organisation and booming boot respectively, to help steady the ship.
If McKenzie and his cronies can find the right balance in the backs, and give the likes of Folau the service they need, then you can expect the Australians to score some tries. Astonishingly, last season under Robbie Deans the Wallabies failed to amass a single try-bonus point – even South Africa managed one. Under McKenzie that will be expected to change.
There is, sadly, no getting around it – their scrum is simply not up there with the best in the world. While they may be able to just about hold their own against the All Blacks, the South Africans and Argentinians will be licking their lips at the prospect of tearing into a tight five that has just been chewed up and spat out by the Lions. And if, as we are hearing, the new scrummaging laws allow for greater dominance for the better scrummaging side the Aussies could be in for even more pain in this area.
There is also a core of inexperience in the squad. The average age is under 25, while Stephen Moore is the only player to top 30. The exuberance of youth is one thing, but experience in big test matches is irreplaceable.
Key Player: Scott Sio
With the scrum such an issue, it is not that surprising that Ben Robinson has been left out of the squad. He may be their most experienced prop, but he has failed to ever exert a dominance at scrum time, and McKenzie, as a former front-row master himself, will see that as a major weakness. His replacement, the Brumbie Scott Sio, is a babe in front-row terms at just 21 years old.
However, most Australian pundits have been quick to laud his inclusion after he had a storming season in Super Rugby, forming part of a front row unit that set the platform for their franchise’s charge to the final. With Stephen Moore likely to be alongside him at hooker, Sio could be the man to drag the Australian scrum out of the mire, and is also more than handy around the paddock.
It is so difficult to win test matches without a scrum that is at the very least on a par with your opponents. If the Australians can’t get that they will not challenge for the title and could find themselves surprised by Argentina once or twice also. However, if they can hold their own up front they have the players to take sides to the cleaners in the backs, and they may finally have a coach in place that is willing to let them do that. It looks likely to be a straight shoot-out between them and the South Africans for second place, but with the men from Africa naming a seriously depleted squad the Wallabies might just take it.
Forwards: Ben Alexander, Albert Anae, Kane Douglas, Saia Faingaa, Scott Fardy, Liam Gill, Michael Hooper, James Horwill (captain), Sekope Kepu, Ben McCalman, Hugh McMeniman, Stephen Moore, Ben Mowen, Jake Schatz, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, James Slipper.
Backs: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Quade Cooper, Nick Cummins, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Leali’ifano, Jesse Mogg, James O’Connor, Joe Tomane, Matt Toomua, Nic White.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Picture: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images