Can ‘strange’ Dave Rennie help end the Wallabies’ Bledisloe drought?

Rugby

Just two days out from the 2020 Bledisloe Cup opener, the question on the tip of every Australian rugby supporter’s tongue remains: Is Dave Rennie the man to end the Wallabies’ 18-year drought?

The second Kiwi to take charge of the Australia’s national rugby team, whose fortunes, brand and popularity have waned the longer that drought has gone on, has had a unique introduction into the Test arena, a result of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.

Rennie has endured no less than four separate quarantine periods since he first left Scotland, where he had been coach of Glasgow, in late June. Since then he has sat through countless Zoom and telephone meetings with his Wallabies assistants and players first on the cusp of selection, and then those named in the 44-man squad last month.

And now he faces arguably the toughest introduction to a Test coaching career one could imagine: Four straight Test in five weeks against an All Blacks side that is still smarting from last year’s semifinal exit at the World Cup.

It’s an unenviable position to be in, but one the two-time Super Rugby winning coach has embraced since the pandemic first took hold in Australia in mid-March.

And it will be the Chiefs’ success in 2012 and 2013, so too his turnaround of provincial side Manawatu and then an all-conquering New Zealand under-20 outfit, that Australian rugby supporters will cling to in the run-up to kick-off on Sunday afternoon.

So how did he achieve that success?

“He’s big on culture and that’s one of his biggest strengths I found, early on, is that he can bring everyone together,” Nick Crosswell, who played under Rennie first at Manawatu and then the Chiefs, told ESPN.

“He wasn’t working with the best players at Manawatu and it took him a few years to get going, but he’s all about culture and ultimately people wanted to play for him, he was that sort of coach. And that’s what he built at Manawatu.

“But also his knowledge of the game, he relates well to players and they reacted well to his style; the way he communicated and was consistent in his messaging and the way he treated people; I think that’s why he went through the ranks and had some really good success.”

All Blacks great Graham Mourie, the man who first plucked Rennie from club rugby and brought him into Wellington’s NPC environment, echoes Crosswell’s sentiments.

“I think Dave’s bit of a strange guy, actually, he’s got incredibly good emotional intelligence; he’s a hugely intelligent guy and he’s got incredibly good rugby knowledge,” Mourie told ESPN. “So I think it’s that combination of a very good game understanding as well as the ability to understand people and relate to the players.

“He did very well there [Manawatu] and then he did three years with New Zealand Under 20s without losing a game. So I think that really was a strong start and a great indication of his ability.

“But when he went to the Chiefs the thing that really stood out for me, he found the best players and players that could do the job required of them and they weren’t always the most popular players; he plucked a few players out of different Unions that may not have had a look in otherwise.

“I think the thing for me that distinguishes the good coaches is the ability to not only pick good players but also be prepared to take on the best people you can in your coaching group — like Dave did with Wayne Smith — and make sure you have the right people around you even at the expense of what some people would have seen as a far more advanced coach than Dave might have been at that stage.”

Rennie’s relaxed demeanour is indeed a far cry from the Wallabies immediate former coach: Michael Cheika.

Cheika’s volatile personality and penchant for pre-game pep talks was well known before he took on the Wallabies job — and viewed as a key reason behind his 2014 success with the Waratahs — but the longer he held the clipboard at Test level, the clearer it became that approach was no longer having its desired effect.

Cheika was very much of the “Us vs. Them” mentality, which eventuality started to alienate some players, others meanwhile took the mantra too far, resulting in an embarrassing press conference ahead of the Wallabies quarterfinal defeat by England when a trio of players offered only a “stupid question deserves a stupid answer” to what was merely a question about their coach’s personality.

Rennie, to the outside, could be seen as the absolute antithesis to Cheika but that personality shouldn’t be misconstrued as a lack of passion, according to a man who helped sculpt the start of Rennie’s coaching career.

“Dave Rennie is understated but don’t underestimate him because he’s understated,” former All Blacks lock and founder of the International Rugby Academy where Rennie hones his craft, Murray Mexted, said late last year.

“He’s shy in many respects but I think his No. 1 strength is his ability to identify talent and nurture it. And I’ve seen him in so many different ways nurture that talent because we get some diverse examples coming through the Academy, people from completely different backgrounds and experiences and levels.

“And just to see the way he works with different people to get the best out of them — it’s not only the players, it’s also the coaches — he’s good in both those areas. He’s a talent, no doubt.”

Given the array of new faces in this Wallabies squad, so too its coaching team, Mexted’s comments about Rennies are particularly relevant and should inspire some small confidence in a rugby community that is sweating on the ability of its impressive under-20 cohort, and other talented youngsters like Tom Wright and Filipo Daugunu, to graduate quickly and consummately to the Test arena.

But that is not to suggest Rennie can’t alienate players, either.

Since his departure from Glasgow, Rennie has been the subject of a small number of aired grievances from players who felt they had been banished from the team’s inner circle.

One such player was Rory Hughes, who said he had lost all respect for Rennie by the time he eventually departed for a loan deal with Leicester.

“Dave Rennie and I definitely butted heads at times. I’d go and ask him questions, and he’d say one thing but do another and I’d go and pull him up about it, and he’d just talk s—- to my face,” Hughes told RugbyPass.

“It was a kick in the balls – you get so angry that you think ‘what’s the point in being here’ when you’re getting treated like that…I didn’t really care what he had to say and I didn’t respect his opinion, and probably vice-versa.”

Hughes’ former Glasgow teammate Adam Ashe was another player to express his frustration with Rennie. Ashe did however admit that he bore no ill-will towards Rennie and was appreciative that he could have “honest” conversations with his coach, no matter how demoralizing they might have been.

On the surface of it, or at least what few comments have flowed out of the Wallabies media sessions and some videos posted to social media of the team enjoying some fun and games with Rennie, Australia are one big happy family ahead of Sunday’s opening Test.

Lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto on Wednesday spoke of how Rennie had been focusing on building the team’s culture — just as Crosswell has alluded to — by getting the squad to understand each player’s contrasting backgrounds, which had been an issue in 2019 when the team was split amid the Israel Folau saga.

In the two and a bit weeks Rennie has had with his squad it has all been very positive.

But the honeymoon period before a game is played, when a team exists within its own warm glow without direct opposition, is fast running out. On Sunday afternoon this Wallabies team has to do the business, or at least show signs that it is capable of doing the business, in order to avoid a 4-0 sweep, faster than you can say: “The All Blacks will be home for Christmas.”

If Rennie is able to achieve the seemingly unthinkable and nab one of either of the two Bledisloe encounters across the ditch, then the level of excitement for the team’s return home will be palpable.

And questions about his suitability for the role will be quickly forgotten.

Mourie, for his part, hopes the Australian rugby community is patient.

“I think with any international team these days it’s really not a matter of weeks, it’s a matter of months. From what I can see he’s certainly got a bit of a rebuilding job to do with Australia, firstly from an ability perspective and the young players that are going to come through, and then also getting the confidence levels and the game plan that he’ll want to have on the field in place.

“And you’re looking at what is a relatively settled All Blacks side at this stage with continuity in coaching against basically a new setup in New Zealand, you’re not going to see what kind of effect he can have for at least a couple of years.”

Hope springs eternal at the start of any new era. But at the beginning of Wallabies version 5.0, having been through the Connolly, Deans, McKenzie and Cheika cycles since they last held the Bledisloe Cup, that same small measure of hope is tempered by a healthy dose of caution, too.

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