Dave Rennie has a big job on his hands in turning the Wallabies around.
His coaching style will certainly bring excitement to the Wallabies, but his defence will need addressing if it is to work on the international stage.
His combination with Scott Wisemantel and Matt Taylor, and their different approaches, will prove very interesting.
His game plan will make for some intriguing viewing when the Wallabies come up against the All Blacks, given the similarities in style and it will also be interesting to see how Australian players, especially established ones, take to his style.
Rennie’s biggest challenge, perhaps, will be finding the forwards to make his game plan work.
Rennie’s teams are usually not too concerned about building numerous phases on attack. The motto of many international teams, most of whom employ the 1-3-3-1 attacking structure, is to keep the ball in hand, build phases and thereby attempt to manoeuvre the defence in such a way as to create space.
Rennie prefers to pull the opposition into unstructured situations thereby allowing his players to attack in one-on-one/unstructured situations. His teams are very adept at the kicking game, whether long or short, and they put on a very good chase. It is through his kicking game that his preference for unstructured attack is created.
Importantly, when his teams do kick, the chase comes from the front-line players while the back three remain in place. When his teams do kick, they hope for one of two outcomes.
Firstly, they hope for a turnover. They put tremendous pressure on the kick receiver and attempt to win the tackle area. They hope for a quick turnover and to move the ball from the ruck immediately so they can attack a defence that is still getting back into alignment.
Secondly, if they concede the ruck, they hope that the opposition, due to being under pressure, will kick the ball back to them so their back three, who are lying in wait, can counterattack an unstructured defence.
This is a very similar way to how the All Blacks, and many New Zealand teams, create their much admired unstructured attack/counterattack. It will be interesting to see Rennie’s Wallabies play the All Blacks given both teams will be attempting to create the same situations.
More intriguingly will be Rennie’s combination with Scott Wisemantel who is firmly in the Eddie Jones camp of having a well thought-out, pre-planned attack.
Rennie places an onus on fitness and skill level. His back lines are usually filled with fast and very skilled players and even more so when it comes to the back three. As with the All Blacks, the success of his game plan rests on having an electrifying back three.
Who Rennie picks as his back three will be very interesting. The current Wallabies do not have the same calibre back three as the All Blacks and for Rennie’s plan to succeed, he will need to find such players in Australia, and quick. It would not be surprising if Rennie picks either fresh or uncapped players in these positions. He has publicly stated that he does not care for experience and that players who are good enough are old enough.
If the opposition chooses to hold onto the ball and run it back (invariably through phase play) then Rennie’s motto seems to be attack the breakdown. Rennie’s teams, from one to 15, are always very well skilled at breakdown play. This seems a wise move, given the general assumption, especially at Super Rugby level, that a team will either make an error or kick the ball after about five phases.
The one weakness of teams that Rennie coaches, though, is that they generally do not do well on defence, especially prolonged defence. His teams are usually at the top of the stats for tries scored and for converting possession into tries, but they generally linger at the bottom for tries conceded.
Rennie’s teams can struggle against teams who can keep the ball in hand for many phases, while being creative with it, or against teams who are equally adept at unstructured attack. This was the case with the Crusaders (ability to hold onto the ball) and other New Zealand teams (ability at unstructured attack) at Super Rugby level.
At international level, the All Blacks come immediately to mind. Rennie’s Wallabies cannot afford to let tries in against an opposition who is equally adept at unstructured attack.
Rennie’s combination with Matt Taylor will also be an interesting one. Rennie is not a defensive guru and Taylor is a proponent of the rush defence. How Rennie’s preference for unstructured attack and Taylor’s preference for the rush defence combines will make for very interesting watching.
Rennie’s teams are always extremely fit, and he has warned Australian players that fitness is a non-negotiable. His teams usually get success by outlasting their opponents and their motto seems to be attack them into submission. When the Chiefs were playing their best rugby under him, they were extremely fit and were able to outlast even the other New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, which is quite a feat.
He will not have this luxury at international level, especially against the All Blacks and Springboks. His team’s ability to keep attacking through their extreme fitness will certainly put them in good stead but he will need to be a bit more creative in terms of game management and even adapting his game plan if he is to get results at international level.
Rennie’s teams are also very good at attacking from set-piece possession through the backs. This has become somewhat outdated with the introduction of attacking structures/phase play and many teams instead opt for simple crash balls to set up their attacking structure – the idea being that their attacking structure will stretch and manoeuvre the defence and give them a better chance of breaking the line.
Rennie (among others in New Zealand rugby) has bought back old-fashioned set-piece attack through the backs, but not as we know it.
Rennie’s back lines run pre-set lines (which includes the blind winger) and the flyhalf just picks an option. There is no vast armoury of back-line moves – just simple, hard, straight pre-set lines by numerous players with one option out of many being picked. He does vary the lines a bit to keep opposition analysts guessing but he generally sticks to the same idea.
These pre-set lines get run in general play as well – they usually consist of a triangle-like formation with a strike runner on the outside. The playmaker either picks an option within the triangle or he himself becomes a part of the triangle and picks an option.
When the Wallabies, under Rennie, come up against the All Blacks this will be an intriguing area of the game to watch because the All Blacks, like most New Zealand teams, run the same triangle set-up from set-piece possession and in general play.
Breath of fresh air
Rennie is generally a laid-back character. This does not mean he is soft, it just means that he creates a positive, inclusive environment and supports his players. This does not mean he is the father figure type of coach either, who sees his job as protecting his players form the mean outside world, but instead, he treats his players like adults and equals and encourages critical analysis of themselves and the game.
Rennie is no-nonsense though. Standards are set, especially with fitness, and if they are not met then you are sent on your way without much of a huff and puff, regardless of your reputation.
He is also big on developing positional relationships within the team. He tries to keep combinations together so they can develop because within his game plan, with its preference for unstructured attack, the understanding of each other and the way others play is crucial.
This should be a breath of fresh air in Australian rugby after the last four years.
It remains to be seen which players, especially the established ones, take to this style of coaching and no-nonsense adherence to standards. It is also likely that Australian fans have seen the last of a constant chopping and changing in selections.
Rennie’s has a big job on his hands. He was very successful in New Zealand because the system he coached in there was built for the type of game he coaches. The players that come through that system are the almost the finished product in terms of fitting into his game plan.
Although he coached the same style of rugby when he went to Glasgow Warriors, and was relatively successful, he does not have any silverware to show for it. The Warriors played exciting rugby, won many fans and made the playoffs but Rennie just could not achieve the same heights because of the lack of players at his disposal. His challenge there was twofold – introduce a new brand of rugby and develop the players to play in it.
And this will be Rennie’s biggest challenge in Australia. Introducing his brand of rugby will not be the problem, it will be finding the finished articles to play inside it. Also, his problem will not so much be in finding the types of backs he needs – it will be finding the forwards he needs that will prove problematic.
Rennie’s game plan relies on extraordinary fit and skilful forwards – big forwards who can hit a gain line, who have excellent breakdown skills and who can also pass, run lines and find space.
There is no shortage of rough diamonds in the Australian forward stocks. The question will be how quickly Rennie can polish them up so they can play his game plan effectively.
Rennie will bring an exciting brand of rugby to the Wallabies, but he will need to work on his defence if he is to be successful on the international stage. He will also need to be a bit wilier with his game plan if he wants to achieve regular success against the All Blacks.
It will be interesting to see how he combines with Scott Wisemantel and Matt Taylor given their contrasting styles. Rennie’s Wallabies will make for intriguing watching against the All Blacks given the similarities in coaching styles and it will be even more interesting to see which Australian players take to Rennie’s style.
Rennie’s biggest problem will be developing the forwards he needs to make his game plan work and an important question to ask is how long administrators and fans will give him to develop these players to a standard where the Wallabies can win regularly against the All Blacks, given the pain of the last four years.