There has been lots of negativity around Australian rugby, but the incoming boss hopes to turn that around
New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie: “We need to change perceptions”
“There are a lot of factions, a lot of talk about past players and captains, the media are often reporting on stories that are negative about our sport. We’ve got our part to play to give them something positive to talk about, but what would be great is to have everyone in Australia pulling in the same direction to improve the quality and image of our sport.”
Dave Rennie is acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead in his new role as Wallabies head coach. Since being named as Michael Cheika’s successor last November, following the country’s disappointing World Cup campaign in Japan, there has been a stream of damaging stories around Australian rugby.
The controversial settlement with Israel Folau; Rugby Australia’s struggle to secure a new broadcast agreement; significant pay cuts and redundancies in the wake of coronavirus; severe criticism of Raelene Castle, including a critical letter from a group of former Wallabies captains, that led to her resignation as chief executive; the governing body’s financial strife that saw it receive £7.6m from World Rugby’s Covid-19 relief fund.
There have been more promising signs recently – the Super Rugby AU competition, for example, which led to a revised TV deal with Fox Sports – but Rennie is still arriving at arguably the toughest period in Aussie rugby history, and he recognises the role he and the Wallabies have to play in strengthening the sport’s position Down Under.
“I’ve been impressed by a lot of things around Australian rugby,” says the 56-year-old Kiwi. “A lot of good things are happening and there are passionate people trying to create change. It’s what we’ve all got to try to do. We need to change perceptions by what we do rather than what we say.
“That starts from us at the top. We want to create strong connections with the Super Rugby coaches and management – that’s important. My role with the Wallabies is bigger than that, it’s about strong connections with the age-grade sides and talent ID. Part of my brief is to help develop Australian coaches coming through too.
“Covid is affecting everyone all over the world. We have to understand that. Financially people are affected, and from a rugby perspective we’ve got to ensure that the game comes back strongly.”
Rennie was quick to impress Australia supporters when volunteering to take a 30% pay cut before he had even started his role, although the man himself downplays the gesture, saying he always assumed the union-wide salary reductions would be applied to him too. He adds: “If I arrived and wasn’t affected while everyone else in the business is, it’s not a great way to start from a leadership perspective.”
Rennie, who coached New Zealand U20 and the Chiefs before taking over at Glasgow Warriors in 2017, was in discussions with Castle and Scott Johnson, Australia’s director of rugby, for around a year before he signed the contract, and there were suggestions that Castle’s departure might see him reconsider his position.
“I signed, so I’m committed,” he insists. “It’s well known that Raelene was a big part of my decision to go to Australia. She really impressed me – she’s smart, driven, wanted to create change. She’d taken a beating in the media for a long period of time but was prepared to fight for what was best for Australia rugby. I liked that steel about her.
“Often people criticising her were throwing stones from afar, but if you talk to her staff they all loved her. I’m hugely disappointed she’s moved on but I’m fully committed. My view hasn’t changed, I’m excited by the challenge ahead.”
He’s since had positive conversations with interim CEO Rob Clarke and new chairman Hamish McLennan, with both giving him confidence of the way forward for Rugby Australia. While there are still myriad issues to resolve in the boardroom, Rennie’s priority is the product on the pitch. He already has assistants Scott Wisemantel (attack) and Matt Taylor (defence) in place, while Dean Benton has been appointed as head of athletic performance. The next step is focusing on the players.
For all the negative financial impact of Covid-19, the lockdown allowed Rennie to get a head start on his new role. With the Guinness Pro14 suspended and not set to resume until August, he handed over the reins at Glasgow to Danny Wilson a month early and has been getting to know players in Australia, building relationships with the Super Rugby coaches and working with his team on their plans for the Wallabies.
“It’s a terrible situation but it’s certainly given me a lot of additional time to focus on Australia. If we (Glasgow) had made our way to the final again this year, I’d have got to Australia ten days before the (scheduled) first Test against Ireland. So there’s no doubt I’m in a far better position than I might have been.
“There’s been a lot of work between the coaching staff about the type of game we want to play and from that the type of athlete we need to play that sort of game. Scott and Matt have been visiting Super Rugby sides and we’ve been doing a lot of Zoom calls around potential players.
“I’ve been in contact with a lot of guys – some young fellas for the future, some guys who are important for us this year. There are almost 40 players in that group and I’ve spoken to all of them. But the door is still open for others to force their way in.
“It’s important they understand what we’re looking at from an international point of view. Hopefully that is reflected in how they play in Super Rugby.
“There’s been a lot of dialogue with Super Rugby coaches and management. Communication is important. We’re offering support and want players to be better skilled and conditioned so they have the ability to step up to Test footy.”
Conditioning is a focal point. That’s not to suggest Rennie believes Australia’s professionals are lacking in the fitness department; he simply wants them to be conditioned to play the type of rugby he envisages for the Wallabies.
“The game we want to play isn’t too far from teams I’ve coached in recent years – a high-speed, high-skill game of footy. If you get that right, it’s difficult to defend against and puts pressure on the opposition. We want to dictate the pace of the game and dominate collisions, to generate quick ball and put teams under stress, as well as slow them down defensively until we get the ball back.
“Conditioning is a massive part of it and around the group we’ve seen the need to raise the bar. Players have to be really fit to play the type of game we want to play against the best sides in the world. It’s about getting back on your feet to defend or attack for multiple phases. It’s not rocket science; it’s about being really accurate and having the ability to do things under fatigue.”
It is not until November that he will be able to put all these ideas into practice, with the Rugby Championship now due to take place in New Zealand over six weeks later in the year.
Yet while Rennie may have to wait for his first taste of international rugby, he is sure to savour it when it does arrive – and acknowledges the importance the Wallabies have to the success of the sport in Australia. “We want to be ready to go and competitive whenever that first Test is. I’m looking forward to getting out on the grass again.
“I love club coaching; you get a lot of time to create change, to create a culture and to develop young kids. The international role is a little different. Our job is to help the Super Rugby coaches accelerate the development of the good young kids coming through.
“It’s not just about how we play and the results on the field, it’s about how we connect with the community, the rugby public. We’ve got a big role off the field as much as on it. From a sport point of view, rugby ranks number four (in Australia). If we can get things right at the highest level, interest will grow and kids coming out of school will choose rugby ahead of some other sports. I’m really excited about the challenge going forward.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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