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Opinion

Rennie a good man as Wallabies coaching job becomes a seller’s market

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11th November, 2019
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The Rugby World Cup post-mortems will continue for months yet, and I remain staggered by the point made during the knockout stages that six of the final eight teams would be going into the 2020 season with different coaches to those that took them out of the pool stage.

Six is actually seven, with Jamie Joseph confirming after the host nation was knocked out that though he’s had discussions about continuing with the Brave Blossoms, he’s not actually locked in as Japan coach next year just yet.

Only England coach Eddie Jones will carry on in 2020, contracted for the next two seasons.

We’ve since learned that not only have New Zealand have given Joseph a call, but that his highly-regarded lieutenant, Tony Brown – in addition to him returning to the Highlanders next season – has rejected overtures from both Ian Foster and Scott Robertson to work with them as an assistant should they win the All Blacks head coach role.

I’ve been saying for some time that the high turnover of experienced players means there’s never been a better time to be a young Australian flyhalf, but it’s equally true that there’s never been a better time to be an international-quality coach.

That so many of the top eight teams at the last Rugby World Cup are suddenly in the market for a new coach can only be a good thing for the guys in demand. Certainly, just in this trans-Tasman patch of the woods, Joseph and Dave Rennie have got a nice little Dutch-auction situation developing.

Dave Rennie

Kiwi Dave Rennie is favoured to become the next Wallabies coach – unless the All Blacks step in. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Like Eddie Jones, Rugby Australia should absolutely be having a conversation with Jamie Joseph too, just to see whether him leaving Japan is even on his radar.

Like Jones, I don’t really think Joseph will end up as Wallabies coach. Jones’ contract situation and likely salary demands were well laid out by the now-repatriated Geoff Parkes yesterday, and Joseph is now in a position where even his second choice is going to come with healthy demand and a pay-rise. The Wallabies would be third choice for him at best, and that’s hardly an incentive to make the move.

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But Dave Rennie is clearly in the Wallabies frame, and that got me thinking about the man he is, and what he might bring to Australian rugby.

And I got thinking about the man he is, because I’ve been lucky enough to meet him a few times, including wonderful sit-down interview I did with him back in 2014.

At the time, I was also writing for what was then known as ESPN Scrum, and with readership on both sides of ditch, Rennie became the first of about a dozen coaches I profiled for a series we ingeniously labelled, ‘The Coaches’.

Rennie was in Canberra with the Chiefs, who were about two months into defending their back-to-back Super Rugby Championships of 2012 and 2013, and the interview was all quickly organised via their team manager, who along with Rennie himself met me warmly and welcomed me into the team room at the hotel, where the Chiefs players were just finishing up a post-training lunch.

Fortuitously, I still have the recording of the interview, and plenty of what Rennie said to me that day six seasons ago still applies now. And that’s fascinating in itself. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and all that.

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“I’m a school teacher, so I’ve coached a hell of a lot, and a lot of different sports for a long time. I guess coaching and teaching are pretty similar,” he told me, in describing how he got into coaching. Plenty of good coaches seem to start out as school teachers; Jake White is one, Laurie Fisher is another one.

“I sort of got into coaching rugby by coaching my kids. The local club I played for (in Upper Hutt, north of Wellington) was under pressure for a coach, so I ended up going there, and I did Wellington ‘B’ for three years, and then the Wellington Lions for four (in the ITM Cup – to the end of the 2002 season).

“I got tipped out there, so I did a bit of contract work for Murray Mexted’s International Rugby Academy New Zealand (IRANZ). I did about five years there, and during that same sort of period I coached Manawatu for six seasons and I coached the New Zealand Under 20s around the same time for three years (winning three Junior World Cups), and then the last couple of years in Hamilton,” he said back then.

Rennie finished up with the Chiefs after the 2017 season, joining the Glasgow Warriors for the 2017-18 season as a replacement for Gregor Townsend, who was himself replacing Vern Cotter as Scotland coach. It’s here that the links with then Scottish Director of Rugby Scott Johnson, now holding the same role in Australia, were first established.

And it’s these links that fuel the widely held belief that Rennie is at the top of the list of potential Wallabies coaches.

I remember the interview with Rennie as being really interesting and really enjoyable, and that all came back to me listening back to the tape.

At one point, Rennie had quite the chuckle when he said of his Chiefs coaching team, “It’s a good mix; we work hard, but we have a bit of fun as well and we enjoy what we do.” My recollection is one of his assistants was grinning at him as Rennie said this. A bit of fun might’ve been had recently, perhaps.

“You want to surround yourself with hard-working good buggers, but guys who are prepared to challenge and we’ve certainly got that in our environment here,” he said, to my question of how he goes about putting together a coaching panel.

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“We’re trying to create an environment where we going to be the best in the world, so that involves a fair bit of challenging and so on.”

James Slipper

Who can help the Wallabies rebuild? (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

I asked him about how he measures success within the Championship-era Chiefs at the time, and I then re-heard my surprise at the way he answered.

“We’ve put a real focus on the community side of things, making our players accessible. Most people see that as a bit of a pain in the backside, having to do work in the community, but for us, it makes us stronger; it gives you an idea of who you are and who you represent,” he said.

“So we’ve done a lot of work in there and the change in attitude and even the change of expectations within the community has changed significantly.”

He expanded with some examples of how the Chiefs took time to reconnect with local Iwi around the Waikato region, and how those conversations made the players instantly more connected with the Chiefs jersey, even the guys in the squad from outside the region. All of a sudden, the team could see they were playing for much more than whoever turned up at Waikato Stadium every second weekend.

How much of this is still relevant six seasons on? Well, without speaking to Rennie again, it’s hard to know, but even in the snippets and interview shorts of his that I have heard in recent weeks, and the few quotes here and there, and even the insights offered by former players of his, there’s been nothing to suggest to me that he’s changed his tune on any of these attitudinal insights from 2014.

Is he the right man to take the Wallabies forward? I honestly have no idea. And I have no idea about anyone really, or even how many realistic candidates there are out there.

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But listening back to this old interview reminded me of why I enjoyed speaking with Rennie as much as I did. There was no airs and graces about him, and I think you get to know fairly early on where you stand with him. I’ve got no idea if he ever read the profile, but I know he always offered a handshake and a quick g’day whenever we crossed paths a Canberra Stadium in subsequent meetings.

He might be the outright favourite for the role; there may yet be other and better candidates out there. There is plenty of time for the right decision to be made and there’s no need to rush anything.

But in the back of my mind, I do wonder if Dave Rennie might just be the kind of no-nonsense straight shooter the Wallabies could certainly do with.

The idea of challenging each other and reconnecting with the community all seems very obvious right now.