“My expectation is that we’ve had more time to prepare for this than rugby league and Aussie rules and they’ve all been on individual programs while they’ve been away,” Rennie said.
“Some have come back in fantastic nick, while others have needed a gentle reminder to work harder. The game has the potential to be a little bit quicker this time but there’s no reason why they can’t come back in great shape – we’ve seen the New Zealand teams look pretty well-conditioned. Our expectation is that guys come back in ready to go.”
Rennie will have to watch the opening rounds from New Zealand, where they are marooned in a halfway house of sorts between his commitments with Pro14 club Glasgow and Australia. As New Zealand citizens, he and wife Steph had to head home first to serve out the mandated quarantine period before moving to Australia. Initially, Australian officials hoped the trans-Tasman travel ‘bubble’ would be up and running by next month, allowing Rennie to hop across the pond and be on duty by mid-July. But with no sign of that happening, RA will have to apply to the government for an exemption to Australia’s international border closure.
I’m keen to talk to him (Cheika), I figured maybe if he’s willing we could have a chat.
New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie
The upside for the Rennies is a long-anticipated reunion with their three adult sons and their families, which now extend to two grandchildren. They will head to Palmerston North on Tuesday to see out the month, with an Australian arrival potentially pushed back to late July.
No small challenge awaits the former Chiefs and New Zealand U20s coach, with only an abbreviated season to prepare for as many as four Tests against the All Blacks and, potentially, further clashes with World Cup winners South Africa and Argentina.
“It’s exciting, isn’t it,” Rennie says. “The more opportunities you have to play the All Blacks the better. They’ve had the wood on us over a number of years and I just think the more you play them, the better understanding you’ve got of the shifts we need to make to be competitive and be able to knock them over regularly.”
This observation could be part of the reason one of Rennie’s first calls will be to the man he replaced, Michael Cheika. The pair coached against each other in Super Rugby, with a seminal 2014 clash in New Plymouth signifying the changing of the guard that took place between Rennie’s then-dominant Chiefs and the awakening of Cheika’s Waratahs. Cheika’s Wallabies beat the All Blacks three times in 14 encounters, which more than qualify him as an informed source. Whether he’s willing or not, is another matter.
“I’m keen to talk to him, I figured maybe if he’s willing we could have a chat,” Rennie says. “I wouldn’t say we had a lot of catch-ups when we were coaching against each other … but he’s had a lot of time at a high level in the game and been very successful, including a Super Rugby title and a European Champions Cup.
“I’ve been doing a lot of that with players as well, to try and get their view on the World Cup and where they’re at and what they’d do differently. I’d certainly like to talk to Michael as well.”
One topic that won’t be on the agenda is the resignation of former RA boss Raelene Castle, who recruited him as Cheika’s replacement. Where Cheika and Castle had no relationship to speak of by the end of his time in the top job, Rennie and Castle struck up a strong rapport.
Rennie revealed he never seriously considered reneging on his deal to join Australia, despite being upset by the nature of her departure during the height of the COVID-19 shutdown and fallout.
“I was upset, clearly, but I was committed. I’d signed a contract,” he says. “Raelene wouldn’t let me anyway, if it ever came to that. That’s the quality of the person she is. There were also other people we’ve already contracted and others we’re talking to, who are waiting in the wings because of the current [COVID-19] situation, who were involved in my decision to come to Australia.”
Down to business
Despite the competition shutdown it’s been a furious few months for Rennie, who balanced Glasgow duties with Wallabies duties despite not being under contract until July 1. After the first few rounds of Super Rugby he and Johnson, plus assistant coaches Matt Taylor and Scott Wisemantel, compiled a 40-strong list of Wallabies hopefuls, nicknamed the ‘PONI (player of national interest) squad’.
It generated headlines not least because of its focus on form and potential and its omission of longstanding Test regulars including Kurtley Beale and Rob Simmons. It was a move away from the perceived ‘favourites’ of the Cheika era that went down a treat amongst Australian fans.
“The door isn’t closed on other guys coming into the group,” Rennie says. “We’ve been doing a lot of work with the PONI guys on work ethic and some of the detail that isn’t measured by the clubs. Their ability to get into position off phase of attack, defence, off line breaks, off kick-chase and counter attack.
“That’s around mindset and attitude, their ability to get to their feet quickly and get moving. We’ve been able to give feedback to all those players. Some guys have been excellent and some guys have a lot of work to do around that.”
One player on that list was Rodda, who is now packing for an impending move to French club Lyon after an ugly falling out with the Reds and RA. Rennie personally approved the release requests from veterans Beale (Racing 92) and Speight (Biarritz) but Rodda is one player Rennie fought hard to keep, engaging directly with the second rower himself and his manager.
Even now, with Rodda reluctantly heading offshore, Rennie is working hard to keep the relationship strong.
“That was a disappointing outcome. To lose another second rower who’s young enough to play a lot of footy long term for the Wallabies wasn’t great,” Rennie says.
“He’s signed a 12-month deal, so it doens’t mean the door is shut on him to come back. It was very messy, but if you do right by your players some of those guys come back because they know they’ve been looked after in the past.”
Rennie’s sentiment might raise eyebrows in Queensland and amongst fans, who read stories about young players refusing to take pay cuts at the height of the coronavirus crisis. A version closer to the truth would note that the Brumbies and Force both wanted to sign Rodda but all parties – the Reds, Rodda, his management and RA – had taken positions that effectively made it impossible for RA to be seen to ‘reward’ him with another contract.
“What’s been portrayed lacks accuracy,” he says. “He’s a good man and he wants to be a Wallaby. I’m not going to go into all the issues around the contract and the tactics that were used to potentially get him out of this contract, but you query whether that was the best way of doing it.
“Izack had a sabbatical in his contract that meant he could have gone away and still been available this year and next year for the Wallabies. I certainly haven’t closed the door on him.”
What is clear is that Rodda will not play in a gold jersey from Lyon. RA’s review of the Giteau Law looks certain to result in some relaxation of the current rules but Rennie is firm on where he will pick his players from.
“My preference is we lure players back to Australia or promote from within,” he says. “My concern with [relaxing] the law is that it’s a slippery slope. Players are financially better off over there and if they can still play for their country then what’s to stop them going in droves.”
Free marketeers argue for Australia to embrace the inevitable, which is a move to a Socceroos model where almost all top players are based overseas. But Rennie isn’t prepared to concede just yet, citing the different game styles and training environments in Europe’s major club competitions.
“You have to be able to compare apples with apples and playing in France is very different. We have no influence over how they’re training or what they’re doing. They pick a lot of big men and while they have some excellent clubs it’s very different training-wise. There’s not a lot of time on the grass or emphasis around skill set and conditioning. We have minimal influence over those players while they’re away.”
That alone should be enough to convince Wallabies fans to get behind Rennie’s hard line, given complaints about Australia’s declining skills and poor conditioning.
A compromise position Rennie says he could get behind is a Super Rugby based eligibility zone. It was floated last week based on a trans-Tasman model, but Rennie is thinking more broadly.
“Who knows what the future holds around Super Rugby but the question could be, what if there were Japanese clubs involved in the competition and if some of our top players were in Japan?”
What is clear is Rennie has had plenty of time to think. Soon – not soon enough for a typically hard-working coach – he will have the ability to translate thought to action.
Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.