Dave Rennie was coach of the Chiefs, searching for a way to bring his players closer together.
It was 2012, and Rennie also believed his squad needed to form a stronger connection to the local community.
The players renovated their training base at Ruakura in Hamilton. They hitchhiked from Hamilton to Ohope, a trip of about 200 kilometres, to meet the punters. They held coaching clinics in small towns stretching across the region: Taupo, Counties, Hamilton, Bay of Plenty. They learnt more about their local Maoritanga – Maori culture and traditions – and even incorporated that language into their defensive calls.
The Chiefs, regarded as a talented but under-performing side, won back-to-back Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013.
Rennie has already said one of his priorities as new Wallabies coach is to look for ways to strengthen bonds and respect within the squad. The Wallabies, like the Rennie-era Chiefs of 2012-2017, have a significant Pacific Island influence. Of the current Wallabies squad, about 40-50 per cent is made up of players born in Samoa, Tonga or Fiji, or have Pacific Island heritage.
Israel Folau’s sacking by Rugby Australia over the fullback’s religious social media posts clearly created angst last year, and the bitterness was highlighted again earlier this week when News Corp published affidavits from Wallabies Sekope Kepu and Samu Kerevi that were filed in support of Folau in his court battle with RA.
“At the time I wanted to support Israel publicly,” Kerevi wrote. “I couldn’t because the players (including me) were told by management not to comment on the issue.”
The Folau fallout undoubtedly strained the relationship between the Pacific Islanders and RA leading into and during Australia’s World Cup flop. Rennie will be keen to bring some love to the table. You can bet that this healing theme would’ve been discussed in Rennie’s interview as well as the RA board’s deliberations over who was the best coach candidate.
There’s also a school of thought that modern-day head coaches at the professional level – and more so at the international level – are increasingly responsible for building team culture and unity and focused less on tactics and strategy. There’s now a solid head count of support staff who are crunching the numbers in video review sessions and planning meetings so the head coach can spend more time dealing with the sensitivities and idiosyncrasies of various players. Cultural sensitivities are part of this.
In New Zealand, a recent research report found that New Zealand Rugby could do more to engage with the Pasifika community when discussing the sport’s future. A consequence of that is NZR created a new job, Pasifika engagement manager, who will be tasked with giving New Zealand’s Pacific Island community more of a voice in how the sport is run. They will work at a grassroots level as well as a high-performance level. An appointment is due soon.
Rugby Australia will be keen observers given the recent turmoil.
For now they’ve made an astute appointment at a sensitive time. Rennie’s mum was born and raised in the Cook Islands and he’s the first Wallabies coach of Pacific Island heritage.
Not that Rennie wants to emphasise it.
“A lot has been made of me being an islander and I have an understanding of all the island boys,” Rennie told The Australian late last year.
“But I treat everyone the same; it is an old saying but people don’t care what you know unless they know you care.
“I will crack the whip when required but I also bring the group together and make a real effort to create a strong broader family environment. There are no acceptable differences, we don’t have different rules within the group.“
Based on those comments and Rennie’s experience at the Chiefs, he’s well suited to bring the Wallabies together following a fractious and success-starved period since making the 2015 World Cup final. The consensus in New Zealand rugby is that Rennie is firm but fair. He understands that strong team values are crucial to build respect and then success.
“In professional sport there is a lot of focus on skills,” he said.
“But it’s the connections with the people, who you play for and what you represent and how you do that… I think it’s really important.”