Ewen McKenzie: no messiah, but a visionary of sorts

McKenzie to tackle ill-discipline

The first time I met Ewen McKenzie was in the foyer of the Queensland Rugby Union’s Ballymore headquarters, not far from a trophy cabinet that hadn’t seen much more than an occasional hoovering for the best part of 15 years.

It was early in 2010 and he had not long been appointed as the new coach of the Reds, taking over from Phil Mooney, a well-liked local mentor whose departure had prompted Digby Ioane to propose a player’s strike to force his return. It didn’t gain much steam.

Here was the seventh Reds coach in 11 seasons. They must have considered installing a turnstile at the front of the coach’s office instead of a door. I shook McKenzie’s hand and introduced myself.

“I know you,” he said, before adding: “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad.”

For a sports writer, that’s about as good as you get when it comes to making fresh starts. But it did provide a glimpse into the way McKenzie operates.

In scouring bylines to see the way the Reds were being portrayed in the local media, he was readying himself to completely refashion a hapless franchise and trampled brand through both deeds and words.

Much has been rightly made about Jake White’s results with the Brumbies, a side now bristling with Wallabies and showing all of the clinical instinct of a side that can take out the Super Rugby crown.

But it shouldn’t overshadow McKenzie’s work with a Reds outfit that had talent but was, to be completely honest, one of the worst sporting franchises in the nation at that point.

From 2004, they had managed to finish 10th, 10th, 12th, 14th, 12th and 13th, winning just three games the year before he took charge and constantly finding new and exciting ways to lodge bullets in their feet. Off the park, they were a corporate punch line drowning in debt.

‘Player retention’ was little more than an abstract concept, with one of McKenzie’s first tasks having to deal with the fallout of Berrick Barnes’ defection to the Waratahs, a cataclysmic event that opened a pit directly to the fires of hell right in the middle of the Ballymore training field.

When asked if he would try to lure Barnes home, lest the Reds implode with only a kid called Quade Cooper as Plan B, McKenzie shot back: “How do you know we want him?” And away he went.

In terms of the McKenzie era at the Reds, the rugby truths are self-evident. From a largely blank canvas emerged one of the fittest, most confident sides in Super Rugby, whose players were suddenly swelled with a self-belief imparted by a coach who gave them a licence to not only thrill but prosper from the inevitable mistakes.

The players loved it, as did the punters, who came through the gates in record numbers to see Queensland soar to a Super Rugby title in 2011. They rarely left Suncorp Stadium with the feeling their side held anything back.

But it has been his work to bridge the gaping disconnect between the Queensland public and their professional side that will be one of his lasting legacies at Ballymore. Those disaffected masses have been embraced and in turn, injected a fresh vitality into rugby north of the Tweed.

Now McKenzie must do it all over again at the head of a national side that has been dealing with more internal factions than the Labor Party and suffering a similar fate in the polls.

One of McKenzie’s pet sayings is ‘perception is reality’. If it looks and sounds like an ill-disciplined rugby side that can’t flourish on the big stage, it’s essentially true. There will be no hiding from what is reflected in the mirror.

Changing those outcomes will be top of the ‘to-do’ list but selling the vision, something the always circumspect Robbie Deans could never really manage, will be a cornerstone of McKenzie’s platform.

Ewen McKenzie is not the messiah, although he does inherit his share of very naughty boys. But he is keenly aware where the game sits, where he wants it to be and what he and the Wallabies must do to get it there.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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