Players Must Take Ownership

Off-field distractions have destabilised the Wallabies’ campaign but should not be viewed as a fallback position for losing against the best team in world rugby. It is a golden opportunity for the players to stand up and be counted.

A struck match can ignite the whole forest. Outwardly it appeared a minor incident on that Wallaby flight to Brazil but the repercussions proved otherwise. The fuel that fanned the flames had reached tinderbox proportions.

Now that the haze has temporarily cleared, there is a significant cleanup operation required as the Wallabies prepare to face the All Blacks’ haka this Saturday at Suncorp for the 152nd time since 1903.

Coach Ewen McKenzie’s grand plans to take the Wallabies to the summit of world rugby are in disarray. What he perceived as an innovative strategy utilizing a highly qualified business manager to streamline squad operations went up in smoke.

It is clear that the establishment of a more bureaucratic approach to steer Team Wallaby got lost in translation.  Communication lines, perceptions and human relations were swallowed up in an administration and protocol maze.

Amidst the current gloom surrounding the national team, former Wallaby and ex commentary colleague Gary Pearse believes this latest fiasco will galvanize the  team. He is also adamant that Kurtley Beale and the ARU have a case to answer.

“If Kurtley was asked to change his tee-shirt he should have. He is no different to anyone else. If the team is required to be attired a certain way before they land he has to tow the line,” he claimed.

“My understanding is that there has never been any unprofessional conduct between Ewen and his business partner. The ARU Board approved the arrangement. That’s the car they bought. They can’t complain about it.”

Skipper Michael Hooper and the players are backing Beale. Their inference is that his offensive texting about the business manager Di Patston was an immature schoolboy antic which highlighted his and wider team frustrations.

Whatever your take on the whole saga, there can be no denial that Beale  overstepped accepted behavior standards and has to face the consequences.

Which takes me back to that Humpty Dumpty analogy. McKenzie has had another great fall following the thumping loss to the All Blacks. Do the players care? Are they ready to help him pick up the pieces?  Is the culture as bad as some rumours suggest?

McKenzie is an elite coach and has demonstrated in the past that he can refresh and reappraise his modus operandi. His reputation has taken a hit but I believe he and his fellow coaches have the necessary respect despite recent setbacks.

It is important now that the national coach addresses his own shortcomings openly and honestly. Clearly he hasn’t seen the forest for the trees.

Certainly Wallaby supporters will be hoping latest events make the team tighter and stronger. Pearse is in no doubt.

“The Wallabies have nothing to lose against the All Blacks and I believe will develop a siege mentality at Suncorp. There will be a stronger bond between McKenzie and the players. My view is that it will consolidate, not disintegrate.”

The former back rower knows the backs-to-the-wall scenario well. In 1978, Wallaby coach Daryl Haberecht suffered a heart attack before the final Test in Auckland and the players stepped up and took control of their destiny.

“The selectors flew in key reinforcements John Hipwell, Tony Melrose and Geoff Richards. Those guys helped inject a totally new dynamic for that Third Test at Eden Park,” he recalled. “We were unstoppable that day.”

Bearded no.8 Greg Cornelsen incredibly scored four tries against the Kiwis, Pearse got the fifth. Australia won by 30-16 and the win remains the most astonishing outcome in Trans Tasman rugby history.

But back to reality this weekend. The Wallabies are under no illusions as they face off against their arch rivals. The All Blacks were magnificent in defeat against the Springboks at Ellis Park and will start a raging favourite.

So where does this leave McKenzie and his squad? In terms of introducing a new dynamic, that has to come from within. 

There were extenuating circumstances in the recent loss to Argentina and the biggest issue was fatigue after the record 275 tackle count in Cape Town. The disallowed try for Tevita Kuridrani at a critical time was also a back breaker.

But this is not a time for excuses and the show must go on.  Providing there has been total honesty by McKenzie and Beale’s alleged misdemeanors are not terminal, my hope is that both men survive this unfortunate malaise.

“Although Kurtley must comply with team standards, he is the type of player who needs special guidance. That approach certainly got the best out of Andrew Walker,” explained Gary Pearse.

Those guys need to be playing and working their X factor magic. If they are not playing they spiral.”

Meanwhile the All Blacks smell blood especially as they perceive a distinct edge in physicality and fitness over the injury hit Wallaby pack.

In leadership terms it is very much a master and apprentice comparison. Richie McCaw is the best in the business while the amazing Michael Hooper is on a crash course. Although Hooper could reassess his referee etiquette. Craig Joubert will listen if justified.

New Zealand’s backline is humming and why wouldn’t it with the quality platform it receives up front.  And therein lies the enormity of Australia’s challenge. To match the All Blacks’ aggression, accuracy and highspeed intensity.

Accordingly the Wallabies need to treat this Bledisloe Cup clash as a sudden death World Cup match. Anything less than that level of resolve and urgency from the forwards will end in more disappointment.

No-one can question the commitment of the Wallabies in their last two losses. But the fact is they must give their all and more this weekend to restore credibility and give Adam Ashley-Cooper a fitting 100 cap celebration.

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Coach McKenzie and his players must feel a bit like ducks in the shooting gallery at the moment. Can they stand firm and repel the barrage of bullets?  All will be revealed on Saturday night.

Gordon Bray is TEN’S chief rugby caller and will be joined by Wallaby legends Matt Burke and Stirling Mortlock with host Scott McKinnon LIVE from 7.30pm AEDT.