For someone who doesn’t officially start his new job for another week, incoming Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has sure done a mountain of homework already.
The one clear sense I took away from a forty-minute Zoom session with the Australian media yesterday was that Rennie won’t need much ‘feet under the desk’ time at all. He’ll be ready to go as soon as he gets in Australia, whenever that happens to be.
Currently serving their mandatory quarantine period back home in New Zealand, Rennie and his wife Steph – and Rugby Australia, in fairness – had initially hoped a trans-Tasman travel bubble might have allowed them to arrive on this side of this ditch in the next few weeks.
The end of July now looks more likely, and more quarantine on arrival is not out of the question. But for someone making the long trip home to begin a new job, you might have excused Rennie for being a bit vague on some topics put to him.
It wasn’t required. Rennie gave considered answers to every question put to him, and didn’t shy away from any topic raised. He played a straight bat a few times, but he played a shot at every delivery.
And that forced my hand a bit for this column, I must admit. Typically, I’d put my opinion around such quotes and kick off the discussion that way. But I’m going to do it a bit differently this week, because sometimes, the answers to the questions don’t need any further interpretations.
So, here are the highlights from Dave Rennie’s first major media all-in. In Dave Rennie’s own words.
On reaching out to Michael Cheika
“I haven’t, but I’m keen to. I always thought I’d do it face to face. That might be a little easier to do once I get to Sydney, maybe have a catch-up.
“He’s been involved the last five years, and he’s got an enormous amount of experience both in Europe and in the southern hemisphere. I’d really value having a good chat to him, and I think immediately after his exit wouldn’t have been the right time anyway. I’m sure he’s had lots of time to reflect on things.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of players that went to the World Cup, and I’ll get feedback on where they think we’re at and shifts we need to make, but yeah, keen to get ‘Cheik’s view on that. Hopefully, he’s available for a coffee.”
On Scott Johnson remaining on the Wallabies selection panel
“We’re still to discuss that fully. I have no issue with ‘Johnno’ remaining part of that process. I think our ability to justify our selections to someone who might be slightly removed from the group is not a bad thing.
“But to be honest, how I’ve done it in the past anyway is that it’s a real group decision. As coaches, we’ll have an idea of a squad we want and we’ll get clarity around that, and there’ll be the odd position that we might not all agree on, so we’ll sleep on it. But I’m happy for ‘Johnno’ to be part of that process.”
On the importance of next 12 weeks to shore up ‘national interest’ squad selections
“Obviously, the next three months is a great opportunity for players. We’ve had close contact with 30-odd of them, and that’s been good for me. The positive side of no footy since March has been that I’ve done an enormous amount of work with the other staff, and it was a chance for me to do a lot of homework and get a lot of clarity around the players and the quality of their game and so on, and some areas we need to see some shift in.
“We’ve done a lot of work around that, but there’s still opportunities for guys to jump in from outside that group. So that’s what the next three months is about, really.”
On and whether changes are needed to the Giteau Law
“The ideal scenario is that we’re picking from within. And the reason I say that is, if we do like South Africa did around the World Cup, and you allow all your players to go overseas and you can pick from anywhere in the world, clearly you end up with a pretty good side in a World Cup year but it’s going to encourage a lot of players to leave Australia and chase the big money, knowing they can still play for their country, which I think will have a detrimental effect on our Super Rugby and the development of players within that.
“Trying to lure some of those guys who have left recently and encouraging them to come back and play Super Rugby and then be eligible for the Wallabies is important.
“We’ve made lots of phone calls to lots of individuals, just to see where they’re at, show them a bit of love, and hopefully lure them back over time. Some of that’s about creating relationships.
“My view is that if we had a Wallaby playing for the Blues, for example, we get to see him playing and playing against the best Aussies. From a selection point of view, that makes sense that you could be able to do that. You can compare apples with apples.
“I’m not a big fan of trying to pluck guys out of France. We’ve got no influence over how they train or how they prepare, and having been over there the last three years I’ve got a pretty good idea of how a lot of those French clubs train.”
On the new Super Rugby AU competition
“I’ve been involved in all the meetings around the new law variations, and the things that we’ve come up with we believe have a chance of being adopted by the rest of the world at some time. So it’s not just a case of throwing stuff in to make it more entertaining or whatever, we want to ensure the DNA of the game is still there.
“There was talk about no resets on scrums. I know there’s a lot of dead time there, but it’s a key part of the game at Test level. Teams that want to scrum are going to scrum, especially in the northern hemisphere. We need to be good in that area.
“I think some of the law variations will be exciting, and it’s a chance for match-ups week after week.
On Super Rugby Aotearoa and renewed focus from refs around the breakdown
“I like the focus. If guys can legitimately get on the ball, they’re being rewarded. There’s been situations where guys have barely got on the ball and they’ve been rewarded, and we don’t want that, but the ideal scenario is that if you can get on the ball, they’re going to have to contest. If you eliminate some numbers off your feet then hopefully there’s less in the defensive lines.
“So positives from that perspective, and then the rest of it, they’re just refereeing Law. You’ve never been able to crawl along the ground in Law, but for some reason it’s been allowed. Post-tackle, some referees think you’ve got to survive the collision, but if you’re on the ball for three seconds why do you have to survive a collision after that?
“I just think they’ve tidied that up and they’re refereeing Law, so that’s a positive.
“There’s been a lot of kicking and I think the concern from the first round was people being rewarded so quickly post-tackle; teams were going three or four phases and they’d lose the ball. What would happen is they’d kick a lot more and be risk averse. We’ve got to get a balance to that.
“The advantage we’re going to have is we’ve already seen two rounds, we get to watch another round this week, our players and our referees. I reckon the importance of creating go forward, so it makes the clean-out a little easier, you’re not going to have to come from the side, it’s going to be a massive part of it and our sides are getting a chance to work on that. And likewise our referees, hopefully they’ll have better balance so we’re not seeing thirty-odd penalties again.
“But then again, they’re making a stand, and maybe that’s where it needs to be until the players adapt and the refs adapt as well.”
On Michael Hooper as Wallabies captain
“We haven’t spoken about captaincy at all. We’ve spoken to ‘Hoops’ a lot about various things, but all we’ve talked about at the moment is earning the right to play, so it’s about playing well enough to earn the jersey and then we’ll sort out who the captain will be.
“Clearly, he’s not doing it at the Waratahs, and that’s been good for his game to be honest, I think he’s played really well. He’s still leading, no doubt, he just hasn’t got the ‘C’ next to his name.
“He’s a strong contender for Captain. But we haven’t firmed up any decisions around that and we’ll just work out what the team is first, and then we’ll select a captain. But there’s lots of good leaders in among that group.”
On Brumbies coach Dan McKellar as a Wallabies assistant
“I’m not in a position to talk about the rest of our staff, only because we’re at a stage where there’s been a lot of redundancies and job losses and so on.
“Over the coming weeks, it’ll become clearer. We’ve got only a skeleton crew in at the moment, and we’ve got a number of guys around S and C and coaches that we need to fill some holes.
“But what I will say about Dan is that he’s really impressive. I’ve conversed with him a lot over this year, and I’ve coached against him a bit when I was with the Chiefs. He’s running a really good operation there, and I think it’s important that we provide avenues for Australian coaches to come through and develop, so yeah, he’s a really good coach and would be a good addition to our group.”
On short and longer-term goals as Wallabies coach
“Everyone wants to be successful, and success is often based off results. What we know is that we should get to play the All Blacks a number of times this year, if nothing else, so that’s a great introduction for us.
“For me, that’s pretty exciting; you’re playing normally the best side in the world – maybe not last year at the World Cup – so it’s a really good gauge of where we needs to be, and I reckon the more times we get to play the All Blacks, the better, because we haven’t had a lot of success against them over the last fifteen years.
“We’ve got to put ourselves under pressure against the best.
“Outside of that, I think we’ve just got to make some shifts. So from a conditioning point of view, we’ve tried to work through the Super Rugby sides to get the boys a lot fitter, to get them back on their feet quicker, to get them back in the game, both in attack and in defence because that’s a massive part of it.
“We reckon if we can work hard and get a wall in front of teams, we can defend for long periods and hopefully create turnovers and score off those. Likewise in attack, back on our feet quickly to put pressure on them from a defensive perspective. So conditioning’s been a real focus for us, and then skill set under pressure.
“Talking about results and that, what we know is we’re seventh in the world. We need to better than that.
“We had a lot of older guys who left after the World Cup, so there’s a lot of genuine opportunities for younger guys coming through and to build towards the next World Cup.
“Ultimately, we want results quickly. That’s our mindset; we’re not looking for excuses. We need to front from the start.”
On his confidence in Australian rugby going forward
“Often through the media there’s lots of stories that probably don’t paint a great picture about Australian rugby, but there’s lots of good things happening and there’s lots of good people involved in the game who are passionate about the future. I just think we’ve all got to pull in the same direction.
“My assumption is lots of comments are made in the paper which seem negative, but hopefully it’s because those people care.
“I just think (we need) more conversations face to face. Less individuals leaking stuff to the media. I just think if we all work harder together, all pull in the same direction, it’ll improve the brand and continue to develop the game.
“We’ve got a lot of good people involved, and that gives me confidence we’ve got a strong future.”