'Wallabies better prepared for All Blacks'
Ewen McKenzie believes the year he has had working with the Wallabies will pay dividends.
SYDNEY - Ewen McKenzie chuckles when he recalls the baptism of fire in international coaching he underwent last year when Australia took on New Zealand in back-to-back tests to open the Rugby Championship.
Two defeats followed and the Wallabies went on to lose the third Bledisloe Cup test to their trans-Tasman Sea rivals, all the optimism about how McKenzie might change Australian fortunes buried under the weight of All Blacks tries.
Twelve months on, and McKenzie is contemplating a similarly daunting start to the Rugby Championship with a home opener against the All Blacks on 16 August followed by the return in Auckland the following week.
While New Zealand are no less fearsome, McKenzie believes the year he has had working with the Wallabies will pay dividends.
"You don't roll into it," he told Reuters after announcing his squad for the tournament.
"But I feel better having been involved in the French series, that was a really good period for us.
"So when we next get together, even though there's been the hurly-burly of the Super Rugby finals, the guys will just dust themselves off and get on with it.
"I think they'll feel better prepared for the challenge this year, I certainly feel better about it."
Australia's comprehensive 3-0 sweep of the French in the June series came after an encouraging finish to their November tour of Europe and means they enter the Rugby Championship on a run of seven victories themselves.
It sometimes seems that wins over New Zealand are all that count in Australian rugby, though, and the Wallabies have racked up impressive winning streaks before only to come a cropper when they meet the All Blacks.
McKenzie is a fan of the stock therapy group maxim sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results."
For that reason, the 49-year-old has set about overhauling everything the Wallabies do on and off the field in order to create an environment where, he believes, success can flourish.
"There's been a lot to work on," he added. "Some of the parts of the job have been easier than I thought, some have been harder. I guess that's the same in every job.
"I've enjoyed the challenge but it hasn't been easy. I was pretty adamant we needed to do some things differently to do better."
Some of those changes have come on the field, some will probably not be known until memoirs are written many years down the line, while others have been made apparent by public action.
McKenzie quickly let the players know that there would be no sentimentality on his watch by benching halfbacks Quade Cooper and Will Genia and stripping the captaincy from lock James Horwill at various points last season.
Although his actions could be justified on grounds of form, there was some surprise as the trio had been the backbone of the Queensland Reds team that won the 2011 Super Rugby title - the triumph that effectively earned McKenzie his job.
Another public statement came when he banned six players - including widely respected veteran back Adam Ashley-Cooper - for one test and handed written warnings to nine others after a drinking session before the victory over Ireland in November.
On the pitch, he has rewarded form while also aiming for the kind of consistency in selection that means the 32-man squad he named for the Rugby Championship contained only two players who had not been involved during the France series.
"You want continuity, we want the players to feel what they're doing is validated and the combinations we've been using will stand the test of time," he said.
Tellingly, when asked about backline stars like Israel Folau, McKenzie gently steered the conversation back to the forward pack so often derided in New Zealand as Australia's "soft underbelly".
"We've got some exciting X-factor backs but you've got to get the ball to them," the World Cup-winning prop forward said.
"I've been pleased with the efforts of the forwards, they get maligned, but I've been pleased with their ability to get quality ball to feed the backline and give us a chance to put pressure on and score points."