5 Biggest Concerns for Australia Coach Ewen McKenzie in Rugby Championship

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistAugust 26, 2014

5 Biggest Concerns for Australia Coach Ewen McKenzie in Rugby Championship

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    Sang Tan/Associated Press

    Ewen McKenzie has a lot to ponder in the wake of Australia's 51-20 thrashing at the hands of New Zealand in the second week of this year's Rugby Championship.

    Things started so brightly after the opening-round draw against the All Blacks in Sydney, but the upcoming break gives the head coach a chance to take a step back and reassess before heading into the fray once more.

    The 2014 Bledisloe Cup is lost and the Wallabies' Rugby Championship lies in some disarray, but with the bigger picture in mind, we discuss the aspects McKenzie must address sooner rather than later.

1. Issues in Depth Once Again Raise Contract Debate

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    Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    One could call it unfair to compare any side to New Zealand in terms of squad depth, but when you're trying to be the best in the world, you undoubtedly have to look to the top to see where your outfit's falling short.

    For all McKenzie's star talent, a worrying lack in quantity is beginning to become clearer as the Rugby Championship wears on, with Pat McCabe and Nathan Charles some of the latest to join the injured list following this weekend's defeat.

    Will Genia's injury has left the half-back position occupied by smaller stars in the shape of Nic White and Nick Phipps, whom we'll come to discuss later, but the drop in standards is visible when going up against international titans.

    Wing in particular is a position of some concern for McKenzie, and with McCabe facing retirement with the recurrence of a past neck injury, the inexperienced likes of Peter Betham, Henry Speight and Tom English are the ones left to introduce.

    While South Africa and Argentina benefit from less stringent rules on their selection policy, the Wallabies will see stars in Drew Mitchell, Digby Ioane and James O'Connor star in France (granted, O'Connor wouldn't make the squad at present anyway).

    The Australian Rugby Union have continuously made their stance clear on this matter, but if they really want to compete with the best of the best, a change in morals may be required.

2. The Kurtley Beale Conundrum

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    Ross Setford/Associated Press

    McKenzie will be over the moon to see Kurtley Beale repaying the faith placed in him with a string of individually impressive performances, or at least as impressive as a maestro of his ability can muster, considering recent results.

    The dilemma regarding Beale is where to field him for the good of the team, having so far lined up in the fly-half role he hadn't come close to for much of the Waratahs' season.

    En route to a 2014 Super Rugby title, Beale was ever the marvel at inside centre, the position in which he had enough free reign to not only dazzle himself, but to make those around him look better.

    For one reason or another, Bernard Foley, arguably as impressive for the Tahs at No. 10, has been swapped out so that Beale can occupy the jersey himself, leaving Matt Toomua in midfield with Adam Ashley-Cooper.

    It's a re-jig of massive significance, and one that in hindsight could have reduced the deficit against New Zealand and allowed Beale himself to leave a more penetrative mark on the All Blacks.

    Moving forward, McKenzie has a decision to make in which playmakers he can fit into his side and where, requiring a consistent combination of backs who can cement a long-term relationship.

3. Cracking the Half-Back Formula

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    Hamish Blair/Associated Press

    And speaking of combinations, the coach may well decide to make a change in the half-back positions moving forward in this year's competition, with the current partnership seen to be falling short at Eden Park.

    White has been handed his chance, but it may be time that the Brumbies' No. 9 gives way to his Waratahs counterpart, Phipps, who by all means has shown more initiative in the cameo appearances he's settled for thus far.

    In the two starts he's made at this year's tournament, White has clocked up just three metres with ball in hand, whereas his replacement has carried for a slightly more impressive 18, despite featuring for little more than 45 minutes in total.

    The other question lies with whether or not Foley comes in at fly-half, in which case it may be White's more cautious approach that McKenzie chooses to retain.

    In any case, Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden of New Zealand are showing what can be accomplished in their position, albeit with a superior pack in front of them, but thriving as individuals nonetheless.

4. Super Rugby Representation Taking Too Much Precedence

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    Rob Griffith/Associated Press

    After watching Michael Cheika's side claim a maiden Super Rugby title, it's understandable that the Waratahs may be at the forefront of Australia's selectors.

    The Brumbies reached the playoffs to feature just behind their New South Wales counterparts in the pecking order, while the Reds, Rebels and Western Force were significantly lower in representation.

    It was something of a surprise to see the Force not number more substantially among the national team ranks after their run to eighth place, to which some might reply, "Well, who do you drop?"

    As the Wallabies are quickly beginning to show, nobody should be beyond the risk of omission, and the Week 2 loss to Steve Hansen's side showed that top-to-bottom changes are needed, as opposed to a simple sprinkling of new faces.

    While the Waratahs and Brumbies might function well in their club parameters, filling the side with their players by no means guarantees success. Argentina obviously have little choice in their mix of club representation, while South African giants the Sharks will inevitably garner more of the spotlight.

    However, it's indicative that the All Blacks can pepper their line-up with an assortment of names from all over Super Rugby, take risks with new introductions and yet still have good fortune. 

    Last weekend, James Slipper, Rob Simmons and Charles were the only players in McKenzie's starting line-up who don't hail from the Waratahs nor the Brumbies.

    In comparison, the Crusaders were the most represented franchise in Hansen's XV with six, the Hurricanes boasting four, the Chiefs having three and the Highlanders owning another two.

    Obviously, it's not as simple as mixing the pot and hoping for the best results; the Waratahs were a success for a reason this year. However, a more open mind to the outside options at hand may lead to a better unit as opposed to more impressive star players. 

5. Intensity Exposed in Auckland

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    Ross Setford/Associated Press

    One thing that was evident above all else in Auckland was the gulf in determination shown by the Wallabies, and again it's that inevitable comparison with New Zealand that makes things so clear.

    There were several instances where Australia were on the front foot and looking hopeful with ball in hand, but a lack of fire would see them sacrifice territory and, at one point, get almost single-handedly prodded back onto their own try line by Julian Savea.

    This isn't a team full of champions by any means, but too many of the Wallabies look shy and retiring, not least when carrying the ball into contact, which OptaJason shows has been a weak point of the team's this year:

    4 - Despite beating the joint-most defenders (31) in the @SanzarTRC, the Wallabies have made the fewest clean breaks (4). Unconverted.

    — OptaJason (@OptaJason) August 26, 2014

    For the Wallabies to become champions of any notable tournament, they have to start acting like it. It will come in steps, where player selection and tactics will assuredly have an influence, but the mentality of the team is something that needs moulding, too.