After the tumultuous 2019 season, the Wallabies were always going to need to undertake a significant rebuild.
Coach Michael Cheika departed the day after Australia’s quarterfinal loss to England and with him the backbone of a team that had been through two Rugby World Cup cycles; Will Genia, David Pocock, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Bernard Foley, Christian Leali’ifano all headed into Test retirement while Kurtley Beale, Rory Arnold, Samu Kerevi, Izack Rodda, Tolu Latu, Adam Coleman and Nick Phipps all decided their futures lay overseas – at one point or another.
And so the opportunity was created for Australia to start again, to wipe the slate clean and set course for what may prove to be the most important decade in the Wallabies history; a seven-year stretch that will feature a British & Irish Lions series and, potentially, a home Rugby World Cup in 2027.
But after the off-field distractions that the Israel Folau saga created, a far more pressing assignment was the need for some inter-squad healing. While Rugby Australia, Cheika and the Wallabies themselves tried to paint the picture of a happy family in 2019, the cracks were obvious.
RA’s decision to rip up Israel Folau’s contract following his anti-gay social media posts split the squad, certainly many of the Wallabies’ Polynesian contingent did not believe he deserved to be ostracized for expressing himself in what he thought was in line with his religious beliefs.
At one stage or another, each of Taniela Tupou, Samu Kerevi and Sekope Kepu all expressed their frustrations with RA’s treatment of Folau. While the Wallabies eventually set off for Japan, the divide in the squad was obvious.
Fast forward some 11 months, and the Wallabies were at last back together. The issues of 2019 a distant memory, such has been the chaos of 2020, but also still needing to be addressed.
Enter Dave Rennie.
“It’s been good, Dave’s brought something a little bit different to what we had in the past,” Tupou told ESPN ahead of Saturday night’s third Bledisloe Cup clash, in Sydney.
“He’s pretty big on cultural things and trying to build a culture within the team. We’ve got a lot of young boys coming in and it gave them a chance to be themselves and be comfortable around the boys. That’s what I like about Dave, and you just feel comfortable around everyone now.
“Before you used to see us Island boys over there and the other boys sitting over there, but now we’re all together, we’re all singing one song together, and we’re trying to stay tight off the field because it will show on the field how tight we are.
“We’re still building it, but it’s been good.”
As inconvenient as the COVID-19 crisis has been, it may have actually afforded the Wallabies the best possible environment to begin the team’s cultural overhaul.
Facing four Tests against the All Blacks in five weeks, the first two in New Zealand, after isolating themselves in a bubble firstly in Australia, then a few days’ quarantine across the ditch, this was a Wallabies camp like no other.
But it almost fell perfectly into the Rennie blueprint.
While coach of the Chiefs, where he won two Super Rugby titles, Rennie set about helping the squad connect with each other on a deeper level, so too the region they represented every week they ran out onto the paddock.
Ahead of the opening Bledisloe Cup Test in Wellington, where Australia were unlucky to come away with only a 16-all draw, the Wallabies social media channels gave an insight into how Rennie had taken on the challenge of bringing his 44 players together. Realising that almost half of this new era of Australian rugby was of Pacific Island origin, Rennie knew just how to build the off-field bonds that Tupou says will make them stronger on it.
“I guess with the new coach and the whole new coaching staff as well, and a new make-up of the squad, you’re trying to find ways to fast-track that ability to connect and really show what’s special in the group,” Wallabies prop Scott Sio said Wednesday.
“Being of Cook Island descent himself, Dave, it’s something that he did at the Chiefs as well, and we saw how successful he was there and the things he tried when he went over there and coached at Glasgow. But he realised the make-up of the squad had so many Pacific Islanders and it’s something that could be a point-of-difference for us like it has been in New Zealand. And it’s something that we probably don’t celebrate as much as we could, especially over the last couple of years.
“He found a way to do that was through singing, through song, the ability to hold a harmony together is, I guess, kind of similar to being on a rugby field, being able to be on the same wavelength there as well.”
Before they knew it, the Wallabies found themselves taking a musical journey around the Pacific.
“He’s done a Fijian song, a Samoan song; we’ve tried a couple of Samoan songs but the boys for some reason find it a bit hard … the Tongans came up with a one-liner there, too,” Sio explained.
“We’ve done a Maori song, a Cook Islands song and then we’ve got our Australian song that we usually finish off with there as well. The pleasing thing for us is to see how much everyone has bought in to each of the songs there and each of the activities that we’ve tried. It’s been great for us.
“The stronger your connections are away from rugby, the more you’re able to have those honest conversations on the rugby field and at training there as well, you’re able to hold each other accountable and not take it personal, which I think is quite important in a team dynamic. It’s been great for us so far, something new, something fresh and I’m just enjoying the whole process of it at the moment.”
This new found sense of unity will be put to the ultimate test on Saturday, with the Bledisloe Cup on the line in Sydney. A defeat will bring back familiar memories. A win, and suddenly the off field changes will have tangible on field rewards. Evidence of Rennie’s cultural revolution.
And while injuries have forced Rennie’s hand at the selection table, he has also shown his faith in these new Wallabies with a bold selection. Established names, including Sio and Tupou relegated to the pine. Debutants in the playmaking 10 and 12 roles. Seven starters with fewer than five caps. Two more new boys on the bench. Heady stuff. A good thing they’re all singing from the same song sheet then?
“Yeah, pretty much,” Sio said.
“Except for the Samoan one, we’ve got about four different song sheets.”