BRISBANE, Australia (AP) -- Even as he was flanked by two high-profile Wallabies he'd just recalled to take on the All Blacks, Ewen McKenzie couldn't avoid the conversation returning to the controversy over Kurtley Beale's bust-up with a team official and her subsequent resignation.
With losses and injuries piling up in his first 15 months as Australia coach and with the No. 1-ranked All Blacks up next on Saturday, McKenzie is dealing with an investigation into Beale's conduct that has put the spotlight on management, created speculation about discord within the squad, his tenure as coach, and his relationship with Di Patston -- and her role among Wallabies officials.
As usual, McKenzie, a World Cup-winning prop, took it all head on.
He defended Patston and her contribution to the team, his own integrity, and said he was confident he had the full backing of his staff, his players, and his employers, reiterating a statement of support released by Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver.
"My job is to get a group of people to play with purpose and get an outcome on the weekend," McKenzie said. "Is it about a popularity contest? It can't be."
Newspaper reports have picked holes in Patston's qualifications as team business manager, and questioned her influence on the team culture.
Since she quit last week, an investigation into a heated argument between Beale and Patston during a recent flight between South Africa and Argentina has exposed a problem dating to June. Beale allegedly sent lewd and offensive text messages, inadvertently sending them to Patston. He apologized and asked her not to inform coaching staff, according to text message chains leaked to Sydney's Daily Telegraph, and the pair apparently agreed to keep the matter in-house.
Beale has now been stood down pending the investigation, and his future in Australian rugby is in jeopardy. McKenzie also has concerns for Patston's welfare.
"She did an outstanding job for me over a long period of time and made a massive contribution," said McKenzie, who brought Patston with him from the Queensland Reds last year when he took over as national coach. "Now she is suddenly on the outer and under massive pressure, heavily medicated and under a fair bit of media scrutiny, which I find incredible -- the depths of that.
"Now, if you Google her name, it will be difficult for her to get a job. It's been a really difficult time."
McKenzie fended off the suggestion that Patston had a negative influence on the team culture, and he got the full backing of Christian Leali'ifano, who was recalled to the starting lineup this week -- taking the spot at inside center that had been earmarked for Beale after Matt Toomua was ruled out with a concussion.
Leali'ifano said it was like losing a mother figure in the national squad, already a rarity in rugby.
"I can't fault anything she has done for this team," he said. "This organization will miss her. It's tough, you know. It's like losing a mother on tour."
Leali'ifano was speaking after the news conference called to unveil the squad for the third Bledisloe Cup test of the season -- New Zealand has already retained the cup after a draw and an emphatic 51-20 win over the Australians in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship. His selection was almost an afterthought at the formal briefing, where McKenzie was grilled again on the scandal, particularly on the outspoken player support for Beale coming from the likes of stand-in captain Michael Hooper and vice-captain Adam Ashley-Cooper.
"Players will support their teammates. How they express that is up to the players," McKenzie said. "I deal with things as they come along. You don't back away from that.
"The reaction and the time and the pressure have been massive and telling, but that shouldn't be a disincentive to deal with things as they come along."
McKenzie, who got the top job three days after Robbie Deans left in the wake of a series loss to the British and Irish Lions last July, denied there was any friction within the squad or between himself and senior players.
A 51-test front-rower and former Wallabies assistant coach, McKenzie was levered into the job in part because the ARU was looking for a culture shift after some poor results and some player disciplinary issues that were unresolved under Deans. He took a hard line on discipline early, banning James O'Connor from a tour to South Africa that led to the young utility player's national contract being withdrawn.
During Australia's last tour to Europe, he suspended six players for a test against Scotland and cautioned nine others who stayed out beyond the team curfew before a test win over Ireland.
The Australians finished the tour with four wins after a loss to England, and swept France 3-0 in a series to open the 2014 international season. After the 12-12 draw in Sydney against New Zealand, things have deteriorated with away losses to the All Blacks, South Africa and Argentina. In between, there were narrow wins at home over the Springboks and Pumas.
McKenzie said he held an open squad meeting on Sunday, giving players the chance to air their concerns, and was confident there was unity in the ranks.
With a five-test European tour next month the last chance to prepare in Britain for next year's World Cup, McKenzie needs to quickly restore a winning mentality.
Quade Cooper, back in the Wallabies fold for the first time this year, backed the squad by saying it would take only a win on Saturday to turn the tide.