Meet the man who could have been king

It’s a brisk but bright November morning in Dublin and Ewen McKenzie is chewing the fat with the Irish media about the need to resurrect his side’s fortunes and the requirement that he do it with a certain panache as well.

Close your eyes and it could be Joe Schmidt talking.

It’s no wonder, then, that the former prop and current Australia coach was one of the names bandied about with greatest abandon when Declan Kidney’s contract expired earlier this year and Schmidt had yet to be anointed by the IRFU.

McKenzie announced his intention to leave the Queensland Reds last February when he declared his ambition to scale the more rarified heights of the Test arena. Australia was the chosen summit but Robbie Deans was still in situ at the time.

So, when the IRFU posted its ‘coach wanted’ advertisement, McKenzie went on record as saying that he would be “interested” in the possibility of returning to Europe — he had earlier coached Stade Francais — and calling Ireland home.

“There are lots of scenarios in rugby, could haves and would haves,” he said ahead of Saturday’s Test at the Aviva Stadium. “Life works out how it’s meant to. I don’t sit around and dwell on these things. You just move on and work through it.

“You have to make your own decisions. I don’t spend any time thinking about it.

“I enquired about things, I enquire about a lot of things nobody would ever know about. It just happens we’re talking about this scenario. It’s what it is.”

McKenzie hasn’t done badly for himself since. The Lions’ series win during the summer finally brought the curtain down on Deans’ time in charge and left his successor with a brief that is almost a photocopy of Schmidt’s.

The challenge for both is to turn around the fortunes of a national team that has slid into difficult times and one that must box clever and punch above its weight against the powerhouse nations in their respective regions.

It is still early days for the McKenzie regime but recent signs — a seven-try defeat of Argentina in Rosaria, a ding-dong battle with the All Blacks in Dunedin and the 50 points they registered against Italy last week — are promising.

Here again is a similarity with Ireland and the role McKenzie may have had. Winning, for once, isn’t everything.

In a marketplace saturated by sports — where AFL, league, cricket and soccer vie for the same pie — the Wallabies must do more. Much more.

“I am very conscious of the fan base in Australia,” McKenzie agreed. “We have got to keep it as relevant against the other sports [as possible] because there are some big engines out there in other codes that we have to keep competing with.

“So we have got our own internal battle: never mind the actual game and where we are in the world. You have to create a reason for people to get up at three o’clock in the morning and watch a game in the northern hemisphere.

“You have to make them want to get out of bed and they are not going to get out of bed if [the score] is 6-3 or something like that. They have to be excited about the prospect but you can’t just decide ‘we’re going to do that tomorrow’.”

Perhaps not, but McKenzie is not short on showmen with whom to amaze the Australian and wider sporting public. Chief among them is Quade Cooper, the maverick out-half marginalised by Deans towards the end of his time in charge.

Cooper may have been born in New Zealand but he is the living embodiment of the Aussie tradition of playing to win and doing so with bravado and McKenzie, who coached him with the Reds, may well be his biggest fan.

“We have a very cluttered winter sports market place in Australia so you have to do something different for the fans to turn up.

“People will say that’s entertainment. Call it whatever you want, but we like to keep fans on the edge of their seats.”


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