Qantas Wallabies Head Coach, Ewen McKenzie has been travelling around to the five Australian Super Rugby teams over the last few weeks to see how they are shaping up for the 2014 season. The ARU Media team sat down with Ewen to get his thoughts on how the provinces are looking.
ARU Media: Ewen, what were your first impressions of how the Australian Super Rugby conference is shaping up for 2014?
Ewen: I am pretty pleased with what I’ve seen. Preseason is a long period of time and the guys have been putting a lot of effort in to get themselves fit and take advantage of having not played a game yet.
Everyone looked in good shape and I can see lots of good innovation and ideas out there. I’m quite pleased with that. I trust the set ups and the coaching and I think everyone looked fresh and ready to go. I’m really looking forward to the games now.
ARU Media: Let’s start with what you thought of the ACT Brumbies. They fell short in the Super Rugby final for 2013, how do you think they are looking under their new coaching structure?
Ewen: I can only judge on what I’ve seen. Obviously being the Reds coach last year, I didn’t have the advantage of seeing them in the previous environment. Everyone was happy and their new set up at the Australian Institute of Sport looks great. It has the right feel about it and the new facility being built at the University of Canberra. That’s all going to be terrific. They were in good spirits and training well.
ARU Media: The Brumbies travelled a lot during last year’s final series before going down to the Chiefs in the final. Do you think they will be better prepared coming into this Super Rugby season having that experience under their belt?
Ewen: I think they will be really motivated. Half the battle of Super Rugby is the relentless competition but once you get a taste of it and understand what it takes to get there, you get to understand it better. They have the benefit of knowing how to do it! I mean, they had some outstanding wins along the way; I thought the semi-final win against The Bulls over in South Africa was great. There is a lot there for them to build on and they still have the guts of the side still there and the same mentality so I don’t see there is any reason why they would have lower expectations than a finals birth. They will have to carry the burden of extra public expectation but that is the burden you bare.
ARU Media: Let’s move on to the NSW Waratahs. Michael Cheika heads into his second year as Head Coach having made some significant changes to the team’s tactics since his arrival. What did you make of the men in blue?
Ewen: Yeah likewise, you can see where they are putting their own stamp on it. Michael is a very experienced coach and he knows what he needs to do to succeed in that role. The lofty heights of competition, well he’s experienced that in Europe so he knows what that looks like. I can’t think of a better guy to take that outfit and try and take it forward.
I think the wider Rugby community feels connected to the team and hopefully in the end with that goodwill and that great stadium they can average crowds of 30,000. At the moment they are not there, but they’ve been there before so there is no reason why they can’t again.
ARU Media: Moving north, let’s talk about the Queensland Reds. The team has been working hard under new Head Coach Richard Graham, having come from there last season, do you think this squad has the goods to take home the 2014 title?
Ewen: Well it’s a similar situation to the Brumbies, a lot of the Reds guys knows what it’s like in finals Rugby, that’s a great advantage. Obviously they’ve got a new set up there, but new ideas are good. Sports teams are always in states of evolution and Richard had a great entrée last year in terms of what the Reds are about with his work with his defence role.
There are a lot of good players there and selection headaches everywhere, so it should be exciting.
ARU Media: The Reds have been very good at beating New Zealand sides in recent years. Can you see that continuing?
Ewen: There is no reason why that can’t continue! Despite the Chiefs outstanding record in recent times, the Reds have beaten them the last three times they’ve played in New Zealand. They would be more concerned about The Reds record in South Africa. If you want to finish higher in the competition you have to be taking on the South Africans over there and winning. That hasn’t been the case in the last couple of years.
ARU Media: We’ve seen their membership number grow and grow at the Western Force, do you think they are set for a big year?
Ewen: There has been a lot of change for The Force on and off the field. Everyone talks a lot about the South African element there but I saw a lot of young powerful players which is handy in any team! There has been some astute acquisitions there and culturally I saw some dedicated, happy guys. They’ve been in the competition for a little while now but they actually have a new generation of players. They’ve probably gone through that first generation of guys in the start-up side; there aren’t too many of them left now. New generation, new players, new coaches. There’s a lot of good change there and I think they seemed pretty excited about how they are going.
ARU Media: The Melbourne Rebels excited their fans with some big wins last year. Do you think they can turn that into a really positive season this year?
Ewen: There is an interesting stat I noticed, recently about The Rebels. Last year against the Australian Super Rugby sides they led them all at half time-except for one, so they put themselves in a position to do well but the end couldn’t always finish it off. So they had opportunities and they were competitive. We saw some great attacking spirit.
I think if we saw one thing they would be keen to change, I think that would be defence side of things. Tony McGahan (Head coach of The Melbourne Rebels) has done a great job down there, remodelling the culture on and off the field. I was very impressed with what I saw and obviously his forte is defence. I think they have some interesting players coming in and I think Scott Higginbotham and Tom Kingston will be ones to watch. I saw a good team spirit and team culture down there and they are being well led. I can’t say that they won’t trouble teams as they go along and they’ll be looking to improve on last year.
ARU Media: Ewen, the Rugby family has grown to 615 809 participants in 2013. This is more people that have played Rugby in Australia than ever before. Do you think this trend will continue and what needs to be done in your opinion to make that happen?
Ewen: I think we all have our part to play. Obviously the Qantas Wallabies success is very important, but now it’s the role of our Super Rugby teams to entertain and inspire the next generation of players. Sport is very cyclical in Australia, I think we only have to look as far as cricket with the Ashes. There was a lot of doom and gloom just a few months ago but now there is a lot of colour and movement and things happening. It can change very quickly!
Success is measured in a thousand little things. It’s not going to be one big thing that makes the difference but a thousand little things. It’s not just the Qantas Wallabies responsibility, but it’s also the fans. The best thing a fan can do is buy a ticket and come and watch. The teams then need to put on a good event, the game needs to be good and the kids need to be inspired so that they will continue supportive of Rugby.
I’ve always said that if everyone looks after the level below them in the game, well, we’ll be in good shape. If everyone takes a keen interest and supports the level down the line then, that’s the best way for us to go forward as a code. We’ve got a lot of plans from the Qantas Wallabies down to connect with the wider community and the country. They will be announced as we go along.
It’s going to be an exciting year!