Following the opening round of the Six Nations last weekend, the ARU Media team spoke to Wallabies Head Coach Ewen McKenzie to hear his thoughts on the competition.
ARU MEDIA: The main talking point coming from the first round of the tournament is France’s come from behind win against England in Paris. Do you think it was a case of France winning the match or England losing it?
Ewen: I watched all the games live. France got off to a flyer and were leading. England did really well to get back into the game and lead mid-way into the second half. With a couple of minutes to go England’s was just in front of the French goal posts, with good field position and momentum. But after a knock on at the ruck by England, France kept the ball alive, being one of the few teams that can do that, and ended up scoring. England’s five point lead wasn’t enough and the French ended up winning by two.
The first half of the game was all France and then it was all England in the second half. France pipped them at the end so you can’t really say it was one or the other because they both had their moments and they both had their opportunities to win the match. England could have easily sealed that game but in the end the game belonged to France.
ARU Media: France has been talked up as one of the teams to win the Six Nations this year particularly because they have so many players that are fresh because they didn’t have any British and Irish Lions commitments, do you think this is the case?
Ewen: I don’t think we can keep going back the to the British and Irish Lions situation. That impacts on players at the start of the season but they move on from that. I think the French win/loss record wasn’t great at all last year so you can’t say they came off a good base. One thing about France though is that they have a lot of good players. There are several players out there that I have had the opportunity to coach when I was over in France. They can be very exciting and very difficult to play against.
France played well, it was a good game and a good contest which could have gone either way, in the end France had more in the tank. The emotional side of it is important for them and they made the most of it.
ARU Media: It’s often talked about how France’s Rugby success depends on which team turns up on match day. They can be world beaters when they really fire, like what we almost saw in the 2011 RWC final against New Zealand. Do you think they are finding consistency on the international stage?
Ewen: If you looked over time that would be a word that would probably come into it, if you look at the history of the Rugby World Cup, France is always poking around the top end of the comp and they have actually been in the final a few times in recent years. Along the way they have had some outstanding results and games that they should have won but didn’t.
When some of those countries play, you get skewed results but fundamentally the French have a got a lot of good players and they have a different process about how players get to the top. They don’t have the same skill structure or feeder situation, most of the clubs are either town based or come through sports clubs, which would be collaborative club with lots of different sports. A player’s journey to the top is a lot different to what we have here in Australia. Despite all that they still produce a lot of talented players and they have effectively the biggest professional competition, with two levels of professional rugby; the Top 14 and the Pro D2 which is at the second level and professional.
Effectively they have 30 professional clubs across the country, far bigger than anyone else. A new TV deal has just commenced and it is bigger than football, so it’s the number one in terms of TV product. Clearly there is a lot of strength in French Rugby at the moment and It’s only natural it will flow out into performance on the field.
ARU Media: Looking at the other games Ireland defeated Scotland comfortably. Considering how close Ireland came to defeating New Zealand in November last year, do you think could be considered a dark horse for the Six Nations title?
Ewen: Ireland’s journey has been one of decline since they last won the Six Nations. Each year they are winning less and less. They are on the rise again with that win but it is a question of whether they can continue that. When we played Ireland in Dublin, we played very well and won four tries to nil, but the next week they put the All Blacks under a lot of pressure. That’s Ireland, they are very difficult side to play in Dublin. They are team with talent and a new coaching structure under Joe Schmidt, a good coach. They don’t have as many matches as other countries before the world cup, so they will have to work hard and make the most of it.
The game against Scotland was close until a minute before half time when. It was 6-3. Then Ireland got a try and it gave them an edge leading into the break which they continued with in the second half.
ARU Media: Warren Gatland will be aiming for a hat-trick of wins if the Welsh take out the 2014 Six Nations title. Do you think after the performance against Italy this is still achievable?
Ewen: A win’s a win. They were playing at home and all the circumstances were in their favour. Italy played pretty well, there wasn’t much in the game at all. I saw what Wales was trying to do but key errors cost them. It was a pretty even game and that’s what Italy can do. They are not a foregone conclusion, you have to go out there and force the win. I think they will be happy to get passed that and take the points. I’m sure they would have wanted a bigger win but there is no bonus point structure in the Six Nations, so you just get on with it and win.