Dave Rennie is back on Scottish soil this weekend trying to keep the momentum going as he rebuilds in Australia
|Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh Date: Sunday November 7th Kicking off: 14:15 GMT|
|Cover: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app|
It’s also a good thing that Dave Rennie is a gnarled character, a man who uses silence like a sword, a trainer who can scare someone to death just by looking at them.
When the Kiwi traded a life in Glasgow for a new life in Australia last year, he took on a challenge so high that it would have dwarfed the Wallace Monument, which he lived next to in Stirling.
His in-basket was a tower of mourning. Even for someone as bland as Rennie, there were clear signs of a nervous twitch as he pondered what lay ahead. There was some pressure on his old job at Scotstoun, but it must have seemed like nirvana compared to the tumult in Sydney.
In the three years before arriving in Australia, the Wallabies had won 50% of their Tests (2017, including two losses and 11 goals against Scotland), 33% (2018) and 50% in 2019 as a result of Australia leaving the World Cup in Quarter-finals through England, a 40-pointer and the biggest loss they’d ever suffered in a knockout match of the tournament. There was a big mess to clean up.
His predecessor Michael Cheika was an excellent coach in his early years, but the end of his reign was a mess. “If he’d taken care of Australian rugby, he would have left a long time ago,” was the snappy comment by Quade Cooper, the Australian 10th.
When Rennie started work that first day, the list of things to do was gigantic. First, he had to rebuild the team – and to do that he had to convince his bosses to give up their rule of not letting foreign Aussies play for their country unless they had won 60 or more internationals. He did, and Scotland will see proof of it on Sunday when Rory Arnold (Toulouse) and Kurtley Beale (Racing 92) win their first international since 2019 (Arnold from the start and Beale off the bench) while Will Skelton (the La Rochelle Colossus) will win his first international match since 2016 (also from the bench).
Rennie has brought other overseas Aussies with him in previous games, so the job is done there. Second, he had to raise a whole new generation. Again he did it. When the full-back Izaia Perese makes his debut on Sunday, he will be the 17th new international in Rennie’s short time. That’s not far from a debutant for every game Australia has played under Rennie’s watch.
Next he had to put together a whole new back room team. There were also Matt Taylor, former Scotland’s defense coach, Petrus du Plessis, former Scrum coach from Glasgow, and Dan McKellar, a former player at Boroughmuir. Scott Johnson, once interim coach of Scotland and longtime rugby director at Murrayfield, was also on the ticket, although reports in Australia suggest Johnson’s coat is hanging on a flimsy hook these days.
Izaia Perese becomes the 17th Australian debutante under Dave Rennie when the Waratahs backs out in Murrayfield
These were all controllable rugby decisions, his specialty. The rest was difficult. The fans were disaffected and almost indifferent to the Wallabies. He had to bring the masses back. Then, barely a wet week at the gig, he had to accept a 30% pay cut because his employers were stuck in the biggest financial crisis of the professional era.
After that, he had to deal with the increasing dissatisfaction among players whose salaries had to be cut drastically. Then he had to navigate his way through all of the vicious battles at the top of the game, a level of dysfunction that reached its low point when 11 former Wallabies captains banded together to accuse the leaders of Rugby Australia (RA) of gross mismanagement, a Part of this led to the chairman of RA speaking about “heinous bullying” of the then managing director Raelene Castle, who resigned because she could no longer bear the onslaught.
Castle was the main reason for Rennie’s appointment, and his main ally was now gone. It was free for everyone. Will Genia (105 caps) practically wept for the rugby nation. “Everyone wants to throw each other under the bus,” he said.
Stephen Moore (129 caps) said: “The state of the game here is so bad at the moment that it has to be completely changed because we have whitewashed the problems for too long and see where this leads us”.
Look, indeed. No money, dramatically reduced audience numbers, too many defeats, a world ranking of seven. A sports management expert raised the hood and concluded that “Narrowtheartedness and backward thinking cripple rugby. It’s self-made destruction”. Sports Australia released a report on the top 20 participating sports and physical activities in the country. All mainstream sports made it. So also surfing, martial arts, netball and Pilates. Not rugby union. In the straightforward world of Peter FitzSimons, the former wallaby and today’s media commentator: “Rugby is on the bones.”
Oh, and Dave, your first four tests as a Wallabies coach are against New Zealand, New Zealand, New Zealand and … wait a minute, let’s see … oh yeah, New Zealand. So keep doing it. Chop the chop, buddy.
There are many different views on how Rennie fared in his two and a few years in charge of Glasgow. A 2017-18 Pro14 semi-final, one step further in the 2018-19 final, a Champions Cup quarter-final, albeit one wiped out by Saracens, and a thermonuclear explosion from Rennie on its players. Some in the room still tremble at the thought of it. “He basically called some of us cheaters,” said one who witnessed it.
Rennie was one of the best coaches in the world but the reality of his Glasgow years didn’t quite live up to the hype. Maybe that was an impossibility. He lost Finn Russell (he was always weirdly cool when Russell’s name was mentioned to him, and instead lost Adam Hastings forever) and then lost Stuart Hogg (while trumpeting a “fantastic prospect” named Rufus McLean).
Glasgow Wariorrs, led by Rennie, missed major silverware in the 2019 Pro14 final at Celtic Park
Other faithful have also left. Some dubious signs replaced them. Rennie’s Glasgow played great stuff at times, but when it came to fighting the big boys they lagged, if only inches, behind a great Leinster team in the 2019 Glasgow final.
Many of his ex-players praise him for what he did for them. A handful have talked about how brutal he could be. Criticism of his methods was heartfelt, if a little weak. Top level rugby is a wild game of sinking or swimming.
And that’s exactly what Rennie had to do when he went to Australia. The financial position in Australia is still tricky but they now have a good TV deal and some traction where there used to be turbulence. The game’s management is still the cause of a lot of comment, but that’s not his business.
They drew, won one and lost two of the top four to the All Blacks in 2020. In that run he made debuts to 10 players. They only won one in six games this year, but Rennie made a name for himself in 2021. You have five wins in a row, two of them against South Africa.
Where the Lions struggled against the World Champions in three tests over the summer to score two attempts (hand-to-hand combat failures by hookers), the new Wallabies scored five in two tests against the Sprinboks, all from his backline. On Sunday, five of the players who were first capped by Rennie will face Scotland, with another four of his discoveries coming from the bench and another three only there because he changed the eligibility rule in Australia.
It has been barely 13 months since his first test with the Wallabies and he has achieved a lot in a bumpy landscape. He’s a formidable operator, almost imperturbable. As he once said, rather sternly, when a Glasgow media man tried to inform him before a press conference: “This is not my first rodeo.”
Rennie didn’t light many fires with Glasgow, but hopes are burning again in Australia – and it’s been a while since anyone said that about the once-tired wallabies. In a rugby world where physicality and defense are the beginning, the end and the in-between for many coaches, two countries want to play here. Sunday should be a great spectacle.