Sydney - Ewen McKenzie has been on a fitness drive, lost the bulk around his
girth, and looks taut, trim and terrific. But that doesn't mean the
successful Reds coach has suddenly become feeble.
No, he is again
pushing straight off the front foot, arguing his team won't be going
into their shell and want to be proud, loud winners.
McKenzie could easily head in another direction, as he has justifiable reasons to be cautious.
A strong factor in the Reds winning last year's Super Rugby title was
the extravagance of their No 10 Quade Cooper. Opposition teams became
obsessed with nullifying Cooper, often didn't, and the Reds reaped the
benefit of an extraordinary talent who transformed the tournament.
But Cooper is injured and won't be around for most of the season. Also,
the pressure on the Reds to continue being the glowing beacon of
Australian rugby is there - especially as their fan base, invigorated by
the team's willingness to take risks and eagerness to entertain,
extends well below the Tweed.
The Reds have even succeeded in enchanting
parts of NSW Rugby's heartland, not surprising considering the Waratahs
antagonised their fans last year with kick-oriented tactics in some
It will be difficult for the Reds to defend their title, because
numerous opponents believe they now know how to counter them, and
without Cooper something is missing. But McKenzie believes the Reds will
continue to adapt, and want to remain trendsetters.
During the week, McKenzie attended the Super Rugby launch in Sydney
where he pushed the Reds cause. It was all positive. It revolved around
sides having to beat a team who have been there, done that, and enjoy
being a bit mysterious about what they will do on game day.
''We are out to win the title … not to defend it. That's our mindset
this year. We don't want to be the underdogs, but one expecting to
win,'' McKenzie said.
''For a young team, last year was a great achievement. If you look at
the week-to-week scorelines, we didn't sink teams, but did enough to
accrue points which got us to the final. But we did show character, and
it is pleasing that those who ran out in the final are still with us.
''The question now is how we front up the following season.''
Much will depend on who replaces Cooper at No 10, likely to be New
Zealander Mike Harris, who, when not injured last year, showed he was a
top-rate midfielder. Waratahs coach Michael Foley this week described
Harris as a great acquisition for the Reds. McKenzie is adamant the
Reds will survive until Cooper returns.
''When you read the papers last year, all the other teams were saying
that when they played the Reds they had to shut down Will Genia and
Quade Cooper. Quade is not there. So now they have to work out who to
shut down,'' McKenzie said.
Reds and Wallabies captain James Horwill says replacing Cooper is hard, but not impossible.
''Obviously Quade is a very special player with a unique set of skills,'' Horwill said on Friday.
''But the guys we have got bring their own styles, and we want them to
show us that. Quade won't be there but we feel we have the ability,
strength and depth in the squad to do what we need to do. Hopefully the
person who gets the job for the first game shines, and they make that
No 10 jersey their own.''
Nor is Horwill concerned the Reds will be under pressure to be
trendsetters, especially after the Australian Rugby Union boss, John
O'Neill, called for the Waratahs, Brumbies, Force and Rebels to emulate
them and be entertaining to improve home crowds.
''There is an added expectation from our supporter base and the general
public,'' Horwill said. ''But you would much rather be in that position
than people expecting you not to win. We welcome it, and it just adds to
the challenges we have to confront.''
''Our main purpose continues to be winning the game. But we also want to
keep adapting our game. The laws and the refereeing interpretations can
dictate what you can do. We will get a mandate soon from the referees
on what they are looking at this season. After this first trial, we
should get an idea on what the referees are focusing on.
''The opposition also comes into play. Sometimes the more expansive game
can benefit you, and sometimes hurt you. We feel one of our strengths
is the ability to adapt week to week, and play different styles so teams
don't know what they are coming up against.''
That's why the Reds remain the Australian team to beat.