Tuesday 20 February 2018

O'Connor axe can allow Aussies to thrive – Harry

Gavin Mairs

The bonhomie as the Australian Legends squad assembled in London on Tuesday to prepare for the match against their English counterparts at the Stoop tonight failed to mask concern over the state of the current Wallaby side.

It has been a tough year for rugby union in Australia. The Lions series was lost in humiliating fashion, with the manner of the record third Test defeat in Sydney costing head coach Robbie Deans his job amid a spiralling number of off-field controversies.

"The way that third Test went was heartbreaking," Australia prop Ben Alexander said. "We will never get that chance again. There was such big hype around that third game. It definitely was the most disappointing moment in my career."

OVERHAUL

Ewen McKenzie, the former World Cup-winning Wallaby prop, has since attempted to overhaul the squad and instil a renewed sense of discipline in a manner not dissimilar to Stuart Lancaster when he picked up the pieces from the wreckage of England's 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand.

McKenzie's problem is that the Rugby Championship is no place for soft landings. Three defeats by the All Blacks and two by South Africa appear to have stalled any sense of a quick fix in the wake of Deans' departure.

Argentina were at least beaten – narrowly – home and away while green shoots of recovery appeared to be found in their final 41-33 defeat by the All Blacks in Dunedin.

However, the Grand Slam tour of Europe, starting with England at Twickenham on Saturday, is seen by many of the former Wallaby greats as a defining period if Australia are to emerge from their alarming slump and forge a squad capable of mounting a serious challenge at the 2015 World Cup.

Richard Harry, the great Australia loosehead who won the World Cup in 1999, believes that McKenzie was right to take a tough line on discipline, including the dismissal of James O'Connor after his latest misdemeanour, turning up drunk at Perth Airport earlier this month.

"For most people in Australia it is about getting some consistency in the tight five and cultural issues, hence James O'Connor being kicked to the kerb, which was the best thing," Harry said.

"I think 99.9pc of rugby players and supporters – like me – would say it is fantastic because it was having such a ripple effect, having someone like that in the side.

"We all know when a culture is fractured. The problem with James is that I just think he was having a very negative impact on the team. He is an incredibly talented player but there were just too many indiscretions that have a ripple effect.

"As Australians watching the Wallabies, we all knew that the culture was absent and we want to see that instilled because that is the thing that is going to take us the extra millimetres."

Harry, who will be playing for the Australia Legends tonight in the game to launch the Rugby Football Union's weekend of events celebrating the 10-year anniversary of England's World Cup victory, says McKenzie's focus must now be on getting his combinations right.

"The big thing is to settle on our personnel first, then work on the game plan and a bit of X-factor after that," he said. "To win a World Cup, there has got to be at least five guys in the side who would be world-class, in stone, no questions asked.

"Do the Wallabies have that? No way. I doubt if we have one. Maybe Will Genia and that's it. If you can get five, then you are on your way."

Chris Whitaker, the former Leinster and Waratahs scrum-half who won 31 caps for Australia between 1998 and 2005, is another who will line up against the England Legends .

Whitaker agrees with Harry that this tour will be a critical time for McKenzie to put his stamp on the squad.

"There has a been a change to their style of play and it takes a bit of time to get used to it," he said. "I think the last two games have shown they are on the right track and going away on tour always helps a team. You get away, stay together and socialise with each other." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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