It took 17 minutes into the Wallabies squad announcement for next week’s Bledisloe Cup Test in Brisbane before there was any question of Quade Cooper’s return after five months out due to injury.
Until that point in an extraordinary 25-minute media conference at the Australian Rugby Union headquarters at St Leonards, an increasingly agitated coach Ewen McKenzie answered a barrage of questions relating to the team’s off-field woes. They ranged from the Kurtley Beale code of conduct tribunal next week, the in-flight slanging match during the recent tour to Argentina between Beale and Wallabies business manager Di Patston, which is subject to a separate ARU integrity unity inquiry, to the extent of McKenzie’s relationship with Patston and if it was intimate.
He answered questions about his understanding of her working and education qualifications that showed inconsistencies on her social media pages when first looked at by Fairfax Media. Others issues included whether he believed he had lost the confidence of the players, if he felt his position as coach was at risk and, in relation to the code of conduct tribunal next week, if he did know about the photos and text messages Beale, who has been stood down, allegedly distributed in June.
McKenzie answered every question but became increasingly frustrated as he defended his position, leaving his explanation at odds with much of what has been speculated or reported recently. With Patston such a central figure in the issues affecting the team and so much speculation about the extent of her relationship with McKenzie, the question was asked if it was beyond a personal one. His reply was: “I’ve got a professional relationship with her as I have with all the other people in my staff. Simple as that.”
Pressed as to whether he has had intimate relations with Patston, McKenzie said: “No. I’ve got a professional relationship with her. And I refute that there are people out there and some sort of campaign out there to impugn that’s the situation. I’ve got a professional relationship with her and I refute that.”
McKenzie also denied her position within the Wallabies had caused unrest or concern, despite reports of concerns for her growing power base in the squad. “I don’t believe her appointment has caused angst,” McKenzie said. “I think she came here as the business manager and she came here with a specific role to take the team to a new level. The whole idea of elite sports and elite teams is to actually get the best out of every part. I came here at short notice to try and improve things. My belief is to get the best out of a team you actually have to make progress on every front. She has extraordinary skills, she’s come in and made a massive difference in terms of the business side of it, and that was her role. That’s what she’s done.”
He defended Patston’s qualifications and suitability for employment at both the Reds where they worked together and at the ARU, saying: “She worked at the Queensland government for 13 years in an auditing capacity and since that time she came and worked for the Reds and she did other things obviously prior to that. She has a very strong background, very strongly qualified in lots of areas around psychology and human behaviour. So she is more than qualified to do the job.”
McKenzie defended Patston’s role in the disciplinary process conducted during last year’s spring tour when 15 players were reprimanded for staying out late at night four days before the Test against Ireland in Dublin though Patston was not touring with the squad but was advising McKenzie from Australia, saying: “She is HR trained, OK? The process of HR is very important so she understands that. She has been responsible for all the job descriptions and management of her HR within the staff in particular. She is trained in that area, more trained than me.”
McKenzie also rejected the notion the Wallabies are divided, despite reports he began losing their support as far back as the Dublin incident.
“I don’t think I have a divided camp,” McKenzie said. “I know there’s been lots of talk in the newspapers and everyone’s got an opinion but I know the playing group.
“I choose the playing group. There’s a lot of guys there I’ve brought into the fold and given opportunity to and I’ve always talked about two things that are important — there’s talent and character and attitude. They’re both very important ingredients to me. I’ve been open and frank in my time so if there are issues obviously we’ll flesh them out. That’s something you’re doing every week, not unique to this week.”
On Beale and the photos and text messages he distributed in June – but reportedly gave Patston an apology which was accepted – McKenzie denied knowing of the incident back then, saying he first learned of it when the Wallabies were recently in Buenos Aires from where Patston left the tour early to return to Australia in the aftermath of the in-flight incident with Beale.
“I became aware of them in Buenos Aires,” McKenzie said. “I became aware of the existence of the text message, the content, I still haven’t seen the content … I know the content of the text, I haven’t seen the photos. When I became aware of it I forwarded the information on. Then she obviously left because of stress and the way she felt about the environment and then it was left to the integrity unit as we advised.”