Just when the Wallabies thought they had turned a corner after spending the best part of a year on the road to nowhere, it seems a significant proportion of their current touring team – precisely 15 of them, appropriately enough – found it impossible to walk past a bar in Dublin without turning into it. As a result, some extremely important players will miss this weekend’s Test against Scotland at Murrayfield, including the wings Adam Ashley-Cooper and Nick Cummins.
If Ewen McKenzie, the relatively new coach of the green and gold brigade, was in two minds about making life difficult for himself by taking disciplinary action against almost half his squad, he was not letting on on Monday.
“The worst thing you could do for the Wallabies in the long term is do nothing, because that would mean ignoring poor culture and a significant performance issue,” the World Cup-winning prop said in decisive tones after reviewing the circumstances surrounding an “excessive drinking session” in the Irish capital last Tuesday night, four days before a 32-15 victory in the Lansdowne Road Test.
Five players – the experienced front-rowers Benn Robinson and Tatafu Polota-Nau, the loose forward Liam Gill and the wide men Ashley-Cooper and Cummins – have all been stood down from international business in Edinburgh and will in effect serve a one-match ban. Robinson’s fellow prop Paddy Ryan has been dealt a similar punishment, but will instead miss the final game of the tour, against Wales on Saturday week, because without him, the Wallabies would be short of numbers for the Scotland game.
Nine other tourists have received warnings, either written or verbal – a clear sign of McKenzie’s determination to assert some authority over a group of players who have worked unusually hard to earn a reputation for dodgy off-field behaviour over recent months. The coach will have been particularly unamused by Ashley-Cooper’s involvement, given the Sydneysider’s status as a senior player with 90 caps.
“Everyone is required to comply with, and adhere to, high standards of ethical conduct both on and off the field,” the coach said. “Those standards were compromised with a group of players making the decision to stay out late and consume inappropriate levels of alcohol during the early hours of Wednesday morning.
“Let’s be clear: these are internal sanctions and are not the result of any complaints of reports of inappropriate or sinister behaviour while our players were out. Instead, we have chosen to address an issue that has come up internally and we are now being up-front about it.
“We’ve done this because we need to continually reinforce the need for our players to make smart decisions for the benefit of the team. We will always take action in relation to examples of poor culture when it’s warranted: doing nothing will never be an option. We’ve taken on the challenge of redefining our team culture. It’s not a simple process but it needs to happen.”
During last summer’s British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, much was made of the behavioural excesses of the so-called “three amigos” – or, if you prefer, the “terrible trio”. Quade Cooper, the Queensland outside-half, had been ditched by the then coach Robbie Deans for making sharp public criticisms of life inside the Wallaby camp while Kurtley Beale, one of world rugby’s most compelling attacking players, was suffering from alcohol-related problems and had spent time in rehab. Then there was James O’Connor, who tarnished his “every mother’s son” image with off-field excursions that eventually led to the termination of his Wallaby contract
Cooper has now been rehabilitated: McKenzie, who coached him in Brisbane before succeeding Deans in the top job, always said he would pick him and has stood by his word – to good effect, if the stand-off’s current form is an accurate measure. Beale is back home in Australia, recovering from shoulder surgery, while O’Connor is attempting to rediscover the best of himself in the English Premiership after agreeing a short-term deal with London Irish.
If McKenzie’s bold action has the desired effect on Beale and O’Connor, as well as the players currently on tour, the Wallabies could yet be a serious force at the 2015 World Cup, where they have been drawn in a “pool of death” with England, the host nation, and Wales, the current Six Nations champions. Certainly, the coach expects his team – what is left of it – to perform strongly against the Scots.
“There is no doubt that having talented players unavailable will put this group under pressure,” the coach admitted, “but we won’t be using this as an excuse. It’s a great opportunity to circle the wagons. The players involved have accepted the outcomes and we’ll be making the best of it. I’m disappointed on a personal level, but you need to deal with issues to ensure everyone is accountable for their actions.”