The autopsy of Australian rugby union has been done to death.
If RA was a patient, this is the time I’d be having a sensitive discussion with the family about palliation.
Yet as I look at the metaphorical vitals monitor, I can still see a heart beat. Can Dave Rennie be the House-like character coming in at the 11th hour to miraculously save the unsaveable?
Can he heal Australian rugby back from its pre-terminal condition? I thought it might be nice to take a prospective look at the task ahead for Rennie.
I really feel for Rennie. Following his sign-on, he has witnessed the combustion of Rugby Australia.
The alliances and back-stabbing seem more reminiscent of Australian Survivor than a professional sports organisation.
If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be comical how much money RA spent on re-branding from the ARU only for this to happen.
However, Rennie would know that on-field victories will trump all the negative publicity that has infected RA.
Rennie was due to start his role in July. In this period of lockdown, how should Rennie be prioritising his time to help Australian rugby?
Rennie cannot fix everything in the RA circus but he can focus on some key areas in this time of lockdown: relationships, strategy and selection.
Rennie seems to be waiting for a period of stability before nailing his colours to a particular mast. He needs to control the controllables. He has a three-and-a-half-year contract until the next World Cup. He should invest his time in establishing key relationships.
1. The coaches
I would set up a weekly Zoom group with Scott Wisemantel (attack coach), Matt Taylor (defence coach), Dean Benton (athletic performance) and Scott Johnson. This fellowship should design a roadmap towards the 2023 World Cup. It should be broken down into six-monthly increments with clear key performance indicators. They could invite an outside stakeholder to an occasional meeting to provide perspective on relevant issues – a RUPA delegate, a women’s rugby expert or an avid fan.
2. The media
Michael Cheika confused passion with aggression. He took this bruising attitude towards everything, including his interactions with the media. His media vilification resulted in rugby’s limited amount of news exposure. Rugby news was often consumed by bitter media disputes. First impressions matter and even though he has a profile in NZ, Rennie remains relatively unknown in Australia. I hope he can develop and foster amicable relationships with the media figures who tell our rugby story.
3. The fans
Cheika was passionate about community engagement but we never saw that story due to aforementioned issues. It is important he prioritises the fans over the corporate entities. Rugby is hidden behind a pay wall. In 2012, the Queensland Reds, after just coming off a Super Rugby title, visited the paediatric oncology ward I worked on. Sadly, not one child recognised any of the players. We need to adapt in order to increase our exposure with increased community activities. Morgan Turinui on the Rugby Ruckus podcast advocates for a community day built into the Super Rugby training week. A day set aside for school visits sounds sensible.
The purpose of this article wasn’t to get too into the specifics of modern rugby tactics. However, there are some things the last few years have taught us.
1. Game plan
Cheika’s method of formulating a rigid game plan and trying to select players to fit it does not work. The coach needs to find a way to get the best out of the cattle he has been provided with.
2. Player eligibility
Rennie should start considering what are important qualities he wants in the Wallabies. If the modern-day power game is a desired commodity in the new Wallabies set-up, Australia has plenty of powerful ineligible players. If we want these players in our set-up, Rennie could use this time to look at ways to fast-track their eligibility or entice them back to Australia.
Whatever strategy he chooses, please do not advertise it for the world to see, like a cheap marketing slogan such as running rugby. Given the multivariate nature of rugby (weather, opponents, injuries, officiating), I hope his strategy is flexible, adaptable and most importantly, successful.
Cheika’s constant rotation of players was sold as a vehicle to promote competition and value in the Wallabies’ jersey. Rightly or wrongly, this prohibited the development of combinations. Furthermore, it eroded the confidence of players as evidenced by Bernard Foley’s decline.
2. Pick and stick
Picking and sticking has its downsides, too. The most important thing is to very carefully consider who you pick in your team rather than the road-test approach of Cheika.