Dave Rennie treated the rugby community in Australia with respect, intelligence and some hard truths in his first interviews as the coach of the Wallabies.
This commitment from him was impressive: “We’ve got to earn respect through how we behave and how we interact with communities, then how we perform.”
What a change to have an adult in charge of the national side after four years of all of us, including referees, administrators and coaches from overseas, having to endure the petulant and self-serving harangues of Michael Cheika.
Rennie did not resort to platitudes in his interviews, thankfully. He created plenty of real rugby news with his comments.
He wants the Wallabies, and by implication the Super Rugby sides, to be fitter than they have been for some years.
Rennie talked a lot about ‘conditioning.’ And by this he implied that the conditioning he had in mind involved physical and mental strengths:
“Just having a positive mindset around how we use the ball, then defensively we need to be well conditioned to bring line speed and try to slow their ball down to get in front and go again.”
The fact of the matter is that in the last few years Australian rugby sides have rarely snatched unlikely victories after a poor start. They have rarely been able to adjust to changing circumstances in the ebb and flow of a game.
There has not been a serious Super Rugby title challenge in that time and last year the Wallabies had one of their poorest years, in terms of results, ever.
Rennie said in interviews that he would pick on form.
There are two things to like about this statement.
First, the coach should really be the final arbiter of the team he is supposed to coach to (hopefully) some success.
It is fine to have selectors to give a wider perspective, perhaps. But the person who carries the responsibility for the results of his team should also have the right to make the ultimate decisions about its composition.
Second, given that it is a new era after a Rugby World Cup tournament, and that the Wallabies have a new coach and coaching team, form rather than past achievements or potential must be the standard.
This standard allows the new coach to see the playing talent through a new lens, his eyes and expectations.
If Rennie is true to this commitment we could see significant changes in many of the positions, with previously favoured players being replaced by better players, who were somehow overlooked for reasons that did not equate with their performances on the field.
Rennie’s shutting down of the Giteau Law, with its 60 Tests, seven season restriction, is to be applauded.
His reasons for wanting his Wallabies to be playing at home are compelling:
“I think what’s really important is that we are picking guys from here,” Rennie said.
“We’ll have more influence if they are playing in a Super Rugby competition which we know is really strong. So I just think it’s important if you want to be a Wallaby, you need to be playing your footy down here… otherwise the fear is that you will have a lot of guys chasing the pound or the euro instead of plying their trade here.”
Rennie is insistent, as he should be, that the Super Rugby tournament is the best tournament to prepare players to succeed in Test and World Cup rugby.
“For us to have control over their development and conditioning and so on, they really need to be back here.”
Of course, the record of the Super Rugby countries at Rugby World Cup tournaments and overall in Tests against Six Nations teams suggests that an immersion of southern hemisphere rugby leads to the creation of the best players and teams.
There is the argument, too, that Rugby Australia should not be in the business of strengthening rugby tournaments in the northern hemisphere that seek to diminish the appeal of Super Rugby, on and off the field, by making it easier for senior players to become overseas Wallabies.
It is my contention, too, that these Giteau Law players rarely come back as improved players, especially after the grind of the European seasons played in the wet and cold.
The interesting aspect to Rennie’s attack on the Giteau Law is that Rugby Australia’s director of rugby Scott Johnson is undertaking a review of it.
Johnson is under pressure from player agents and managers to water down the Giteau Law.
But Rennie’s Law, ‘If you want to be a Wallaby, play at home,’ should be now be respected by Johnson in his review.
Mark Evans, the boss of Andrew Forrest’s Global Rapid Rugby Competition, argues that any relaxation of Giteau’s Law would result in a “free for all” in which rugby “will end up like soccer and every single elite rugby player will play in Europe”.
This, of course, would be heaven for player agents and manager, but a disaster for Australian and world rugby.
Rennie also talked frankly about the captaincy of the Wallabies and the situation of the long-serving skipper Michael Hooper.
Hooper announced some days ago that he was going to stand down from the captaincy of the Waratahs.
Some of the rugby commentators suggested that this was done to ensure that he was fresh when the Test season started and, in turn, they presumed that he will automatically resume his captaincy role with the Wallabies.
But, again, Rennie revealed some refreshing clarity on the captaincy issue when asked about Hooper’s announcement:
“I’ve had no real thoughts around who’s going to captain or when we’re going to decide that. The key thing for me is earning the right. All those guys are going to have to play really well to make the team and then we’ll decide who the captain will be.”
Here are the designated captains of the Australian Super Rugby sides for 2020. They are, presumably, the possibilities to captain the Wallabies this year, along, of course, with Michael Hooper:
Allan Alaalatoa, the Brumbies prop and an obvious Wallaby selection, is the new captain of the Brumbies.
Dane Haylett-Petty is in his second year as captain of the Rebels and is not a must-be-selected Wallaby candidate – let alone a captaincy candidate.
Rob Simmons will captain the Waratahs, replacing Hooper, but is an unlikely starting Wallaby.
Liam Wright, an openside flanker like Michael Hooper, will captain the Reds for the first time. Wright is a rising champion who could challenge Hooper’s selection in the Wallabies as a starting player.
Here we get into the problem that Hooper as Wallaby captain poses for Rennie.
Throughout Hooper’s career openside flankers who were potentially better players than he has been had to leave Australian rugby (Liam Gill) or leave the Waratahs (Will Miller) because Hooper was the captain.
Hooper’s captaincy record hardly supports his automatic selection as an inspirational captain.
And it may be that Wright plays so well during the Super Rugby tournament that he becomes the number one openside flanker.
But even if this is the case, I believe Rennie would not hand the captaincy to someone new to the starting side as a permanent selection.
At this early stage and subject to performances or injury during the tournament, Alaalatoa could be a possibility as a new captain.
He is a world-class player and an established Wallaby prop. He has been a member of the Brumbies leadership group for some years. He has a presence about him that is impressive.
In a sense, he has been predestined for leadership. His father named him after Allan Border, a captain he admired.
The Brumbies players embraced the meme by giving him the nickname of ‘Captain Grumpy,’ even before his appointment as captain.
And his selection could help salve the feeling of some of the Pasifika group of players in the Super Rugby teams and the Wallabies who have been upset by the treatment of Israel Folau.
Finally, Rennie revealed that even though he will be in Scotland throughout the Super Rugby tournament, he and his selectors will be picking a Wallabies team each week.
The emphasis from Rennie will clearly be a form-led revival of the Wallabies.
But this hope for a form-led revival of the Wallabies presupposes an improvement in the performance of the Australian Super Rugby teams.
Can we expect this given the average records of these Super Rugby coaches in previous seasons here and abroad?
Some but not all to this question will be revealed when the opening round of the 2020 Super Rugby tournament starts next Friday with a block-buster match-up between the Brumbies and the Reds.
This will be an early test of my fearless prediction for that the Brumbies will be the standout Australian Super Rugby team this season.