Back-to-back matches against the All Blacks home and away do not present the simplest opportunity to lift the sullen mood of Australian sport but the appointment of head coach Ewen McKenzie has put a bounce into the Wallabies as the second year of the four-team Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend.
Australia’s crushing third Test defeat to the British & Irish Lions in early July sealed a 2-1 series win for the tourists, and was the cue for Robbie Deans to be sacked and replaced by McKenzie, a former Wallaby prop with a gilt-edged coaching CV.
Faced with a dauntingly quick turnaround between the end of the Super Rugby season less than a fortnight ago and the meeting with the world’s No 1 team New Zealand in Sydney on Saturday, McKenzie has already pulled off the trick of being simultaneously radical and uncontroversial by dropping the long-serving loosehead prop Benn Robinson and ending the experiment with James O’Connor at fly-half.
Deans, a New Zealander, had sunk neck-deep into a mire of “am I the only man who understands this?” with O’Connor. It is McKenzie’s job now to revitalise Australia for the 2015 World Cup, when they will share a pool with England and Wales.
More immediately the Wallabies would dearly love to wrest the Bledisloe Cup back from New Zealand, who have held it for the last 11 years.
McKenzie’s first squad features 10 of the Brumbies who reached the Super Rugby final (they lost narrowly to the Chiefs in Hamilton), including Matt Toomua making his Test debut at fly-half, with the Reds’ Quade Cooper recalled to the bench.
All the teams – South Africa kick off against Argentina in Bloemfontein – will be dealing for the first time with the global trial of the new scrum engagement sequence. “Crouch, bind, set” should prevent the Wallabies’ tighthead prop Ben Alexander repeating his version from the second Lions Test: crouch, don’t bother binding, fall flat on your face. James Slipper takes the place of Robinson, with Scott Sio understudying as one of four possible Brumbies debutants on the bench. Another tweak to the pack is Ben Mowen at No 8 with Hugh McMeniman recalled on the blindside flank.
O’Connor has reverted to the wing in an exciting back three with Israel Folau and Jesse Mogg, with Kurtley Beale not involved.
McKenzie played in Australia’s 1991 World Cup final win and went on to coach as an assistant to the Wallabies (2000 to 2003), and the boss of the Waratahs, Stade Francais and the Reds, with whom he won the Super 15 in 2011. A strong, silent type, he is trusted by many to scrub clean the “toxic” atmosphere – as Cooper memorably described it - around the national team, and pull any boozers and carousers into line.
Steve Larkham, the great Wallaby fly-half who played with and under McKenzie, is a fan. “The general public would have found it very hard if Robbie Deans had stayed on,” said Larkham, now the Brumbies’ attack coach who is in London for this weekend’s World Club 7s.
“They were certainly issues with discipline throughout the last two years, but particularly in that Lions series with James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale being out late and missing team buses and that sort of stuff. Things were going on that the public knew about and weren’t right. The culture will have changed under Ewen.
"It’s a really good time for him to stamp his authority in terms of the discipline and then to fix our game up through smarter selections. He very rarely loses his temper, he’s always composed and succinct and to the point. There’s no complication with what he’s trying to get out there. I’ve spoken to some players over the last week, everyone’s got their head down and is working really hard, and there’s a really good vibe in the camp.”
New Zealand’s Dan Carter will miss the Sydney match and the return fixture in Wellington on 25 August with a calf injury, leaving the 23-year-old Toomua to face Aaron Cruden at No.10. “Matt Toomua is really suited to Test match rugby,” said Larkham.
“He has proved throughout Super Rugby that his defence is world class. He’s quite intimidating there, particularly for opposition backs who are running into that channel. He picks his moments to come up and make tackles and has been doing that successfully all year. Changing the coach has transformed the team, I think, with new combinations in the backline and a different style of attack.
"There’ll be a little bit more of reading what’s in front of you, a little more opportunity for the players to feel they’re playing the way they want to play. I don’t expect Ewen to get it all right in this first game. I know the plan going into Saturday will be very simple, particularly in terms of their set-piece plays and they’ll be relying on the guys out there to take the best options. You’ll see the Wallabies’ new style evolve as the Rugby Championship goes on.
“But I think the short preparation time is a good focus. Too many set-piece plays and too much structure that the guys haven’t got their heads around is a recipe for disaster. I’ve got full confidence that the side they’ve picked this weekend is one that can beat the All Blacks. And if we don’t have such a good result it’ll be understandable and I’m sure over the Rugby Championship there’s the potential to get better and better.”