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McKenzie Rolls the dice

Dropping his captain and best player is probably the gutsiest selection he will ever make as a professional rugby coach.

Ewen McKenzie made a life changing decision this week. Dropping his captain and best player is probably the gutsiest selection he will ever make as a professional rugby coach.

In retrospect, his transition from Reds’ mentor to Wallaby supremo has been traumatic. The All Blacks and Springboks harshly exposed deficiencies. The Wallabies have now lost their first three Tests under McKenzie’s watch.

When news filtered out that Will Genia was headed for the guillotine, it was a realization that the unthinkable was about to happen. After all, three months ago the same guy was universally hailed as the best scrum half in world rugby.

McKenzie’s rationale carries weight. Historically a proactive coach, he argued he needed to drive outcomes. That is why ‘Mighty Will’ is on the bench but one suspects the decision is also aligned with the issue of captaincy.

With James Horwill sidelined, the Wallabies lacked pack leadership against South Africa last week. New skipper Ben Mowen has outstanding credentials at the Brumbies and his elevation this week is relevant to Genia’s demise.

Mowen must take the reins with authority and that includes strong reasoned communication with the referee. Too often last week it was left to Stephen Moore or Scott Fardy to vainly argue the Wallabies’ case with Mr Clancy.

Senior players in the pack such as Moore and Ben Alexander as well as youngster Michael Hooper need to step up as active participants in the on field brainstrust.
Mowen needs their on-the-run input and evaluation to address any issues.

So has the new Wallaby coach got it right?  Many out there in rugby land think not, including respected journalist Greg Growden who described the move to drop Genia to the bench as “a dumb decision.”

Genia’s replacement Nic White looked startled when fronting his first Wallaby media conference and confessed to nerves.  Understandably so because after all, he faces the rapidly improving and intimidating macho men from Argentina.

My verdict on Genia is that he has struggled behind an unconvincing forward pack which has creaked at scrum time and has gradually been outmuscled at the breakdown. His service has often been labored and his kicking inconsistent.

Will has been a marked man. Opposition teams have shadowed his every move to shut him down. His frustration seemed to affect decision making to the point that instinctive plays have struggled to surface on the back of slow and sloppy ball.

New Wallaby scrum half White is feisty with a very slick service. His assessment on where the opposition defence looks vulnerable will be crucial. He also passes off the ground which means Quade Cooper will have the ball in his hands earlier.

McKenzie will also look to White’s kicking game to provide a significant edge.  For example, the no.9 has the potential to add another twenty metres on James O’Connor’s touch finders.  His high box kicking is also another pressure point.

White is not unlike All Black no.9 Aaron Smith in that he is very nippy around the ruck and will dart at a half gap.  He will look to clear the ball very quickly and consequently presents a new challenge for the Pumas’ defence.

As senior backline members, the Wallabies also need Quade Cooper and Adam Ashley-Cooper to be at the top of their games. Quade’s performance was criticized last week but he was still Australia’s most creative player.

He is not far away from igniting a hungry backline that will rely on Ashley-Cooper’s vision out wide to make the right decisions. White’s inclusion is designed to speed up the whole process.

The Pumas are close to their first win and hold a significant edge in experience. Their pack has been well schooled in the dark arts of French forward play and apart from scrum half Cubelli, the backline has vast European rugby experience.

With the technical input of World Cup winning coach Sir Graham Henry, Argentina poses a formidable threat and foremost their scrum is a major weapon.

Watching the Wallabies scrum on their own feed is akin to observing someone stealing the tastiest morsels on your dinner plate. An eight man shunt is met by  hooker Moore and no.8 Mowen trying for ‘channel one’ ball under extreme duress.

Talk about a potential recipe for disaster against the Pumas’ famous eight-man  ‘bajada’.  Scrum gurus McKenzie and Andrew Blades will hopefully come up with the right outcomes because the scrum is definitely where it is at for the Pumas.

One helpful solution is to minimize scrums by not dropping the ball and getting turned over at the breakdown. The turnover count was horrendous against the Springboks, often because the forwards arrived slowly in dribs and drabs.

The Wallabies scraped home last year in the corresponding match on the Gold Coast and then rode on the coat-tails of Mike Harris’ amazing goal kicking in the narrow victory in Rosario.

This match is on a knife edge but the Wallabies can seize the initiative through smart, accurate rugby at pace. While McKenzie awaits the consequences of his bravest selection, it is now down to the 23 players to show their true colours.