Returning Jim McKay ready for reunion with old pal Stuart Lancaster
When Stuart Lancaster settles into his head-coach seat above the players' tunnel at Twickenham on Saturday, he may glance a few places to his left and break into a smile. The face greeting him will belong to an old friend and coaching confidante, Jim McKay, Australia's recently appointed attack coach.
McKay was a former Randwick player – counting David Campese and the Ella brothers among his illustrious team-mates – who came to England aged 24 on the customary overseas visit and was still here 15 years later running the Leicester academy. Along the way he became pally with "Lanny" – the Englishman was looking after Leeds Carnegie, while McKay, a proud Aussie, was head coach of the Cornish Pirates.
"I've still got my house in Newquay and I'll be going there to get my surfboard out when this tour is over," says McKay of a demanding trip, that kicks off against England and comprises a Grand Slam attempt plus a match in Italy. "It overlooks the beach, there's the seagulls squeaking away, Cornish pasties, all that sort of stuff.
"Stuart used to come down and stay with me and we talked about rugby. I've got a healthy respect for him and I think very fondly about my time in England. Whenever I speak to Stuart he says "you should write a book one day Jim", because it shows all the coaches in England that there's a pathway."
From "a little player-coach role" at Stourbridge through North Walsham ("I hardly lost a game for four years"), Henley, Orrell, Rotherham, the Pirates and Redruth, McKay says he had an "80 per cent winning record". He won the National Trophy with the Pirates at Twickenham. Who knows, he might even have been Lancaster's assistant now had he not returned home to the Queensland Reds in 2009, helping them win the Super 15 in 2011, before he followed his Queensland boss Ewen McKenzie into the post-Robbie Deans set-up with Australia in August this year.
"I admire the English for their resilience," says McKay, "the pragmatism of the set-piece, the academy system, the way they're hardened by promotion and relegation and the cups, and they play a higher volume of games."
While at Leicester he coached the academy team to win the National Sevens, with Manu Tuilagi scoring three tries in the final against Saracens and George Ford playing too. Is it good news for Australia that Tuilagi is injured? "I would have thought so, yes," said McKay. "He's a tremendous player. He used to play on the wing and I saw that he'd make an ideal centre."
Deans bit the dust after July's emphatic loss in the third and deciding Test with the Lions. A big win away to Argentina and last weekend's 41-33 loss to the All Blacks in Dunedin – a record Wallaby score in New Zealand – are regarded as decent-sized steps on the road to recovery. A pay deal last week appears to have settled some off-field ructions.
When McKay last faced Lancaster – the Pirates versus Leeds three times in 2006-07 – both claimed a win by one point and a draw. Next Saturday's decider will be on a grander stage. James O'Connor, the talented back sacked from his Wallaby contract for non-rugby incidents, will not be there. But another maverick, the Queensland fly-half Quade Cooper, certainly will.
"There's fences around in a team culture and if you jump those fences, there's consequences," McKay says of O'Connor, who may be joining an English club. "It is a shame but I believe he'll come back, as a better person and a better player."
And Cooper, whose goal-kicking and distribution were in good nick in Dunedin? "Quade has been doing some boxing and that's been helping," says McKay. "He's becoming a fine young gentleman, shall we say. I speak to him in boxing terms. Boxing's 15 rounds and rugby's 80 minutes. In boxing you can't afford a mistake, you leave yourself vulnerable, and it's the same with rugby – for the team, there are consequences. Cause and effect, the front foot and the back foot, wearing the opposition down. And knowing the time to pick to go for the knockout punch."
McKay says it is an Australian's nature to be innovative. His reputation is for daring attack and the Wallabies will pick two playmakers from Cooper, Matt Toomua, Bernard Foley and Christian Lealiifano in the 10 and 12 positions, with Israel Folau as a prime weapon at full-back.
"We don't have the playing resources of England or the physicality of the South Africans," says McKay. "We have to play with courage, we have to pride ourselves on having a go and we have to be a smart team as well.
"I know Andy Farrell – he was at Wigan when I coached Orrell – and I've got a lot of respect for the defence he's given England. We need to ask questions of them."
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