Ewen-Me - Q & A with Ewen McKenzie
The Australian Conference gets their 2014 Asteron Life Super Rugby campaigns up and running this weekend with two local derbies headlining the action. We caught up with Qantas Wallabies Head Coach Ewen McKenzie to discuss the secrets to success of winning the Super Rugby competition.
ARU: There is plenty of excitement and expectations around the potential of the Australian provinces but the reality is only one team can win the competition each year. What are some of the major challenges teams face in their pursuit of the silverware?
Ewen: There are so many challenges associated with navigating your way through a campaign but the most successful teams are the ones who show consistency in their performance on a weekly basis and those who can win away from home. The reality is you won’t go through a whole season undefeated - only one team has done it during the days of Super 12 - but you still need to have the mental aptitude to produce at a high level every week no matter what the circumstances or where/who you are playing.
It’s also impossible to predict what the season will throw at you so there is little point in targeting specific games to accumulate points. You can’t cherry-pick your way through and you really need to have that week-to-week focus. Even in those games you lose, remaining competitive and picking up a bonus point or two could make all the difference to your chances at the end of the year.
ARU: You mentioned the importance of consistency. Considering the rigours and travel requirements associated with Asteron Life Super Rugby, how crucial is squad depth in navigating your way through a 16-game regular season campaign?
Ewen: Injuries are inevitable so a strong playing roster across the board is a must. However, equally important is the player management of your squad to ensure your best players are on the field as much as possible. A rotation policy is a commonly used phrase but in my opinion there are other ways to manage your talent without fans having to miss out on watching their favourite players.
During a week only approximately one quarter of the running/training load is associated with the actual game so it’s important you are managing training schedules and programs to best effect. Creating an individual program for each player can go a long way to keeping them on the field.
As a coach you also look at the number of minutes they play in each match. For example, if you replace a player with 25 minutes remaining in a game and do so over the course of three matches it will result in a similar impact as the same player being rested for an entire game.
There are many ways you can approach it but it’s those teams that use a variety of tactics and are flexible in their player management that can achieve the most success.
ARU: How significant is the draw to success?
Ewen: There is no denying the draw has an impact on the way you approach different elements of your campaign. It’s one of the important challenges of coaching to find ways to best manage the demands of your schedule to ensure you are putting your players in the best position to remain at the top of their game over long periods of time. Logistics, opposition, location and climate are just a few key areas you must consider.
However, as a coach you have no influence on the creation of the draw, so there is no point in complaining. You must just get on with the business of winning.
ARU: Months of preparation have gone into the opening games this weekend. As a coach, do you approach the beginning of the season differently to the end?
Ewen: Definitely – you are always faced with uncertainty at the beginning of every season so it’s important that your main focus is just on playing fundamentally sound Rugby. Everyone is starting from scratch, some teams have undergone significant changes to their tactics and rosters, and there are also new refereeing interpretations to get used to.
I’ve always found the opening month of the competition to be a learning phase where you need to find the right balance between being pragmatic and the level of risk you are willing to play with. Building combinations is also crucial so you would hope after the opening four rounds you would have a strong understanding of where your team is heading.
ARU: And finally, how important is getting a win in that opening game to set yourself up for the remainder of your campaign?
Ewen: The margins for qualifying for the Finals Series always come down to a point or two so it’s crucial to set yourself up early in the competition. You never want to be behind the eight-ball so finding ways to win as you build into the season is very important. It’s an old saying but while you can’t win the season in February or March you can go a long way to losing it. That adage definitely still holds true.
The reality is that winning or losing your first game won’t define the success of your campaign but I certainly know what side of the ledger I’d prefer to be on. There is also the added bonus in that you put yourself in the best possible position to capitalise on the excitement of your fans and in the media.