Ewen McKenzie has not had the start he wanted in his first 10 weeks as Australia coach but, rejecting any talk of crisis, the former test prop is busy plotting a first win over South Africa in Cape Town in two decades.
McKenzie’s appointment in the wake of the British and Irish Lions series defeat provoked a wave of optimism in Australia but that was quickly dissipated by two defeats at the hands of New Zealand and a humbling 38-12 home loss to the Springboks.
After finally eking out the first win of his reign, by a single point against Argentina in Perth last week, the Wallabies now face one of the toughest road trips in rugby – a jaunt to South Africa followed by a re-match with the Pumas in Rosario.
Troubles with the scrum under the new laws have only been the most obvious of the problems for a team that has shipped 13 tries in its four Rugby Championship Tests but McKenzie was in no mood for crisis talk after announcing his squad for the tour.
“You can get bogged down in how people want to describe things. I want to see progress,” he told a small group of reporters on Tuesday.
“I’ve definitely seen progress in parts of the game. There are parts we need to do better at, there’s no question about that.
“But I’m looking at other games and I’m not seeing the scrum outcomes in New Zealand-South Africa game, the first five went to penalties. You’re not seeing clear outcomes anywhere.
“So, they’re things we’re going to keep working on, if you get a bit of stability and a bit of consistency.”
An analytical coach who prefers to sit in the grandstand with his laptop rather in the coaches’ box during matches, McKenzie was disappointed with the execution of his gameplan in the home match against South Africa.
So despite the Brisbane drubbing and the fact that the Wallabies have not won at Newlands since McKenzie helped them do so in 1992, he said his team would approach the September 28 fixture with confidence.
“It’s not like they were way out of our league,” he insisted, adding: “We’re not going to go there to make up the numbers, we’ve put a lot of thought into the potential composition of the team and how we might go about it.
“We didn’t get to the gameplan we wanted to last time and so we’ve still got stuff up our sleeve we haven’t tried yet.
“But you’ve got to be able to impose yourself physically on the game, that’ll be an important part of it.”
The return of experienced prop Benn Robinson will add some bulk to the squad, as will captain James Horwill after missing the last two Tests with a hamstring strain.
McKenzie was keen to point out, though, that he had not abandoned his project to get the Wallabies playing “the Australian way” with ball in hand.
“The Springboks are fielding a big, powerful team and we’ve been mindful of that in how we’ve picked the squad,” he said.
“You’ve got to match size to some extent, but you’ve still got to play the game you want to play.”
If he has done nothing else in his short time at the Wallabies, McKenzie has already shown with the benching of scrumhalf Will Genia that reputation counts for little if a player is not in form and he has an alternative.
“You could just wait, but we’re not in a position to wait,” he explained. “You can’t just sit there for five or sixes losses, you’ve got to drive outcomes sometimes.
“You got to make decisions.”