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The Wrap, Scott Johnson exclusive: How Rennie's 'humility' sets solid foundation for Wallabies

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25th July, 2021
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A week on from Australia’s thrilling 33-30 third Test victory against France in Brisbane, it felt like a good time to ask Rugby Australia’s Director of Rugby, Scott Johnson, about the importance of the series win for the Wallabies.

“There’s a what, and there’s a how,” Johnson explains, in an exclusive chat to The Roar, on Friday. “What was done is that our young team got a series victory against high quality opposition. But how it was done was probably more important.”

“For a start, the third Test, it was a great game, a terrific spectacle, and when you consider the qualities that we love about sport and the Australian spirit, it only makes it all the more satisfying. If we throw in the first Test, winning at the death, and even the lessons from Melbourne, what’s critical in Test match rugby is that you have to develop the character to learn how to win,” he says.

“Even though it’s only one step, it’s a very important step. The other side of that is, where we’re fortunate is that one of Dave (Rennie’s) great strengths is humility; teaching young players to keep their feet on the ground.”

What about the bigger picture? What does it mean for the game in Australia?

“Where the psyche of the game in Australia is concerned, ratings are up, people are talking about the game, not about the boardroom, and they’re talking positively,” Johnson says.

“The big thing about Australian rugby is that we’re always being compared to AFL and the NRL, but what people forget is that their advantage is that Australia never loses.”

“We just happen to play regularly against sides that are world champions, like South Africa and New Zealand, where rugby is a far more dominant sport than it is here, so if you like, our measurement criteria are pretty tough. We accept that, that’s the beauty of rugby being a global game.”

“But having people acknowledge the resolve and spirit of the team, in the context of the tough times were are all facing, it’s not only good for rugby, but we think it represents us well as a country.”

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The conversation inevitably turns to individuals, and despite the usual selector’s reticence to single players out, I press him to identify some of the success stories from the series.

“Darcy Swain has probably come through a bit quicker than we anticipated. We’ve lost so many locks over the last 24 months or so, he was a young guy that we identified as having the potential to fill that hole, but for him to step up so quickly is a bonus.”

Michael Hooper captained the Wallabies against France

Michael Hooper in action against France. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

“Another thing is that people like to look at the young kids coming through, but sometimes we don’t acknowledge the senior guy. The performance of the captain was immense. When we first saw the compressed schedule, we weren’t sure if Michael (Hooper) was going to be able to play all three matches, but his ability to recover quickly and play at that level was immense.”

“We were also very pleased with how Tate McDermott was able to fill two roles – bench and starting – and also how Rob Valetini grew into the series and showed us that he is able to bring what he delivers at Super Rugby level, into Test rugby.”

And the coach? Has Rennie managed to stamp his personality and philosophy over the team, or is that something that is still evolving?

“No doubt, when the team came into camp this time around they were further along the path compared to last year, when a lot of things were new,” he says. “Culturally, Dave has done a wonderful job; obviously we’ve got an interesting dynamic with a mix of cultures, but he’s got an amazing ability to unify the group, and also ensure that new boys coming in, fit straight in as well.”

So, assuming the Covid logistics can be worked through, what’s the next step?

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“I think it’s fair to say that we’ve got the attention of the public. And while there’s an expectation around winning, and that’s fair enough, that’s not solely what it’s about. The big thing I think supporters are looking for from us is that we don’t want to be going backwards in the way we play.”

“We want to get a reputation for being a team that’s always in the fight, that’s always hard to beat. And that’s the biggest thing to take from the French series to New Zealand; character under pressure, and the importance of working hard for each other for as long as it takes.”

“Then, if we’re there, if we’re always knocking on the door, then we’ll get more than our share of wins. We showed last year against New Zealand that we were competitive against quality opposition, so that’s a baseline if you like, and from there, we should consistently be in a position to compete on the scoreboard.”

No chat about rugby is complete without a discussion on refereeing. Are the Wallabies happy with how the games are being refereed?

“Obviously, we’d like to get some clarity around high tackles. We all understand the intent behind things, but we don’t think it’s something they’ve quite got right yet. The one law we really like is that players in the defensive line must be clearly onside, so we’re looking for that to be refereed well. I actually think the New Zealand officials do a good job with that, but I think it could be more consistent across all competitions.”

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I probe a bit harder re the refereeing of the breakdown. Has this been a source of frustration?

“Sure,” says Johnson, “there’s some tidying up to do with respect to the clean out, and also what’s considered off your feet, but a lot of it is also down to controlling things ourselves; better support play, body height, accuracy and the like.”

“Overall, the thing about refereeing is that it shouldn’t be about local interpretation or individual referee interpretation. We’re all looking for universal interpretation.”

To finish off, I ask Johnson, if there is one message to leave fans with, what would that be? He goes straight to the Alan Ala’alatoa playbook.

“We’re developing a team that we hope all Australians can be proud of. Our big resolve is to put in performances that we’re proud of, and from there, that our supporters can be proud of.”

After nearly two decades without a Bledisloe Cup, scepticism on the part of fans is not unreasonable. There is also no sense that the All Blacks, even off their highs of the Hansen era, are ready to roll over and make things easy.

The Wallabies were the width of a goalpost from splitting last years’ four Tests. That guarantees nothing, but with natural development in the squad and a hard-fought Test series win now in the bank, the trend is upwards.

The next few weeks will tell us if pride in performance and winning outcomes are ready to be merged.

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Meanwhile, in Cape Town, the much-anticipated South Africa versus Lions series got underway, with the Lions mounting a strong second half performance to overcome the world champions, 22-17.

Elliot Daly

Elliot Daly. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The intensity of the contest was everything that was expected, although the quality of the rugby, rather less so. It’s now over 20 months since the Boks claimed the big prize, yet it was as if time had stood still since then; personnel and game plan unchanged, but this time, execution lacking.

Faf de Klerk kicking incessantly from half-back to create a pressure point on the receiver was mostly where it started and finished, and if the Boks are to turn things around over the next fortnight, they will need more ball-running punch and Handre Pollard, on the occasions they win front foot or turnover ball, to extricate himself from his deep pocket, and challenge the Lions far closer to the gain line.

Despite falling behind 12-3 at halftime, the Lions never lost their composure, had a superior long-kicking game, and their second scrum unit finished the match strongly. Well deserved, first-blood for the Lions.

During the lead-up, much fuss was made about World Cup winning coach Rassie Erasmus adopting the role of waterboy for the Springboks, and whether or not this breached the spirit of the game. As it played out, Erasmus certainly did have a lot of notes for a waterboy, and during some of his sojourns onto the field, seemed to be carrying only one bottle. That’s not a lot of water for fifteen thirsty Springboks.

By the end of the match, he’d even given up that pretence, wandering on empty handed, although it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the message was anyway; “Faf, next time you get ruck ball, I want you to try a box kick.”

(Photo by Getty Sports)

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To be fair, Erasmus wasn’t the lone ranger. The match was marred by too many hangers-on, from both sides, infesting the pitch at almost every stoppage. Referee Nic Berry could be heard on numerous occasions trying to shoo them away, but really there needs to be tighter adherence, and an attitude from both camps to keep off the pitch and leave things to the players.

To finish this week, a reminder that a wee bit of perspective is never a bad thing. After Australian rugby went into meltdown last week, accusing referee Ben O’Keeffe of various atrocities such as being incompetent, blind, a New Zealander or too easily influenced, there were two examples on the weekend that suggested that rugby isn’t as poorly served by its match officials as some believe.

The Olyroos’ 2-0 win over Argentina was accomplished and highly deserved, irrespective of the helping hand they were provided by the referee, Srdjan Jovanovic, who sent defender Francisco Ortega off for a reason that will forever remain a mystery to all who witnessed it.

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Let’s hope Marika Koroibete saw it and got a good laugh out of it.

And while we’re on a roll, check out the 75th minute try scored by Kane Bradley for the North Queensland Cowboys against the Melbourne Storm, on Friday night. Somehow a referee, two touch judges and the infamous bunker all conspired to give the green light to a pass more forward than a frisky Lithuanian pole vaulter stepping into a lift with the Brazilian women’s volleyball team.

Based on those two shockers, rugby fans might do well to tone down the ref bashing and instead, start counting their blessings.

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