It tells you something that there were only four Waratahs picked in Dave Rennie’s initial 40-player Wallabies squad announcement at the end of March: Angus Bell at prop, Dave Porecki at hooker, Lachie Swinton in the back row and Jake Gordon at scrumhalf.
It may tell you even more that the group had grown to six when the squad was reduced to 38 for the upcoming series against France, after NSW had completed the first winless season in their illustrious history.
Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese were added to the mix at centre along with captain Michael Hooper, while Porecki dropped out entirely.
Does it represent political bias? Highly unlikely, as Rennie is a Kiwi with no skin in this particular game. It must be something else, such as the ability of a coach or coaches to identify winning talent in a losing team.
If a coach selects a player from a winning or champion side, nobody will argue. There tends to be an automatic assumption that the player has contributed to the team’s success and that they’re worth the shot at a higher level.
It is very different when the head coach nominates a player – let alone six – from a team that has won no games at all. Questions are much more likely to be asked about their judgement if things go wrong. Suddenly they will find themselves out there, alone on the island.
Yet it is precisely in such situations where coaches really show their mettle. They are looking for the diamond in the rough, which can be polished into a brilliant gem.
“The key to being a modern football player is the ability to respond quicker, both mentally and physically, than the other player,” legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh once said.
“Physical strength and speed are important advantages, but even more advantageous is having the training that permits you to respond intelligently to whatever confronts you.”
Rennie will hold the belief that he and his fellow coaches can either create that responsiveness in the players they select, or provide the training to develop it further.
In the top American sports, picking players out of a losing franchise equates to selecting draftees out of small colleges in uncompetitive leagues. There is a natural reluctance to chance your arm. Here’s Walsh again, speaking in 1993:
“Take our drafting of John Taylor in 1986. John came to the 49ers as a wide receiver from Delaware State. He had great physical talent, but not a lot of background in playing sophisticated football. We simply miscalculated how long it would take John to be ready to play in the NFL. Consequently, we were disappointed in him. John was not adapting well to the competition, he appeared confused and frustrated, and he had lost his enthusiasm.
“But instead of giving up on him, we took a longer-term, more patient approach. We waited an extra year to allow him to mature and grow into this level of competition and into the role we wanted him to play. Now he is an All-Pro and one of the great receivers in the game.”
It is an age-old story. In the 1960s, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi picked Willie Davis out of a tiny coloured college in Arkansas, Grambling State, and helped mould him into an All-Pro defensive end. He came from a broken family, and his mother worked at the same Country Club where Willie was a locker boy during vacations.
Lombardi loved what he saw: Davis’ honesty, his work ethic and his dedication.
“Between games, and even in the off-season, he replays game situations over and over in his mind, analysing his errors,” the coach said.
As Davis himself put it poignantly, “I try to play, so I can live with myself.”
Dave Rennie will be relying on what he sees deep within those winless Waratahs – qualities that are invisible to most others. Their development will need the time and patience Bill Walsh noted, and the strength of character and dedication observed by Vince Lombardi.
That applies to all of Angus Bell, Lachie Swinton, Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese, but to none more than the latter, who has had a second – or maybe even third – lease of life after bouncing around between the Queensland Reds, league’s Brisbane Broncos and Bayonne in the south-west of France. He was arrested for drug-related offences while with the Broncos and never settled in Europe. A job with the Waratahs represented a rope dangling into the abyss. One last chance.
Perese’s brief cameo during the final round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman against the Chiefs illustrated the black and white of the situation for Rennie. The 24-year-old was off the field for good in only the 11th minute, coming off the worse after dropping his shoulder into an opponent at a tackle.
“The tackle didn’t have to be made,” commented Michael Cheika on Stan Sport.
“We saw it previously in some of the clips – Izzy Perese going in making tackles he doesn’t need to.
“And if you see it, he’s looking for the big contact – no grip, no arm around – so it’s really unfortunate because he’s been very talismanic.
“He’s made some great breaks tonight even for the Tahs. Very disappointing.”
During that short stint, Perese had made one big break on attack and contributed to an equally big break-down on defence.
On the one hand, there is the ability to beat four defenders from a standing start behind the ruck. On the other, taking a line into a decoy runner prematurely on defence, and helping to open the path for a training ground run-in for the Chiefs.
Rennie’s job is to disentangle the attacking prowess from the defensive naivety, and find the dedication to self-analysis of which Vince Lombardi speaks and the need for quicker response time highlighted by Bill Walsh.
The Chiefs’ cameo was a capsule of Perese’s season in 11 short minutes. He and Marika Koroibete were probably the two biggest Australian outside running threats in Super Rugby this year.
Put Perese on the end of the second or third pass from ruck or set-piece, sit back and watch the fireworks happen. This is not just anybody Perese is beating for fun: it is Leicester Fainga’anuku, Crusaders number 13 and All Black-elect (even if he was overlooked in their first squad of 2021), who he is running away from in the first instance and trampling underfoot in the second.
When Perese gets the ball in the outside half of the field and can engage the final defender, he also has the ability to deliver a wide variety of killing offloads.
Underarm out of the right hand going right to left in the first instance, back of the hand going in the opposite direction in the second.
The picture changes completely on defence. Fainga’anuku got some of his own back with ball in hand in the Crusaders game:
As he is already well into his ‘jockey’ (sideways and backwards towards touch) Perese can probably leave Fainga’anuku to the Waratahs number four running inside him. Instead, he stops and sticks his man and gives up a further 15 metres along the sideline.
This theme was echoed in a Super Rugby AU match against the Force:
Again, the basic movement is towards touch, so it is counter-intuitive for Perese to stop and stick his man, Tevita Kuridrani, rather than hold off and include the inside cover defender in the pattern.
He also tends to give up the offload out wide on defence as often as he makes it in attack:
These are both equal numbers scenarios which should not result in a clean break for the Force. But in the first instance, Perese over-runs his opposite number, Kuridrani. In the second, he stops and allows the Force distributor to engage two defenders instead of one.
Dave Rennie will want Izaia Perese to keep himself in the defensive pattern rather than taking himself out of it, and keep his head as close to the ball as possible as the ruck forms:
The litmus test for the Wallaby careers of both Dave Rennie and his support coaches will probably occur in their teaching and motivation of what Bill Walsh calls the ‘middle six’ of a playing group.
“Take a group of ten players. The top two will be supermotivated. Superstars will usually take care of themselves. Anybody can coach them,” he said.
“The next four, with the right motivation and direction, will learn to perform up to their potential. The next two will be marginal. With constant attention, they will be able to accomplish something of value to the team.
“The last two will waste your time. They won’t be with you for long.
“Our goal is to focus our organisational detail and coaching on the middle six. They are the ones who most need and benefit from your direction, monitoring, and counsel.”
Except for Michael Hooper, who falls into the superstar category, the Waratahs chosen for the upcoming series against France in July all fall into the middle six. Some are more marginal than others. Angus Bell’s challenge is the scrum, Lachie Swinton’s discipline, while the real test for Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese is on defence.
In Super Rugby AU and Trans-Tasman, both centres, along with scrumhalf Jake Gordon, have been defending in a soft, leaky pattern, so Rennie’s initial requirement will be to disentangle their individual defensive value from the system in which they operated.
Can Perese develop that quick response time in a superior system? Can he find the dedication and honesty to stick at the job and fulfil his undoubted talent? Will he be able to say, like Willie Davis, “I try to play, so I can live with myself”?
A lot of careers – and not just Perese’s – may hang on the answer to that question.