By Paul Cully
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie.Credit:Getty
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie isn’t the sort of man who indulges in spin to make himself or his side look better than they are.
The 57-year-old is about to embark on a brutal 14-Test campaign with the Wallabies – the Herald has learnt an enticing Test in Japan is likely before the Spring tour – starting with a three-match series against France this month. In an in-depth interview, Rennie offers his unvarnished opinions on the Wallabies and the state of the game in general.
Rennie has been working the Wallabies hard ahead of the Test series opener against France on Wednesday.Credit:Getty
“We’ve got some guys who are in fantastic nick, and are coping with the workload well but others are finding it a real challenge,” he says. “But that’s how we’ve designed the first couple of weeks, to give the guys an understanding of the lift in intensity at international level, and the conditioning and the skill set under pressure and under fatigue required.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on foundations and fundamentals…We’re in a lot better place than we were two weeks ago.”
To use a non-technical term, the Wallabies have been flogged on the Gold Coast. Returning second-rower Sitaleki Timani has already said he has never trained as hard. Nic White and Scott Sio have already left the camp with injuries. In his first session after returning from France (and quarantine) second-rower Matt Philip copped a black eye. Rennie says the days have been starting at 6am and finishing at 6pm.
The tourist strip has been no place for the faint-hearted as Rennie tries to eradicate the soft underbelly that was evident in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Rennie on …
Improving the tight five:
- “When you look at New Zealand sides, generally the tight five are explosive and powerful but highly skilled. They’ve got good feet, good hands. It sets them apart, probably from the rest of the world. That allows them to play high speed, high-skill type of game. That’s where we’re trying to get to. We’ve done a lot of work around catch-pass…the quality of our footwork. We still want to be direct but want to be able to dominate collisions and if you’ve got no footwork you go nowhere and you get slow ball.”
- “When you look at Super Rugby the average amount of points conceded was 39-plus. That’s just way too many points. We’ve done a lot of work around working hard for each other, the quality of our individual tackling, and discipline within our systems….our ability to slow and steal ball and then try and profit off that.”
The Wallabies identity question
It goes without saying that all Test sides want to play an attractive, winning style of rugby that pleases everyone. Yet, those sort of platitudes really tell us nothing about the identity of a team, and what they want to be known for.
During the trans-Tasman competition, Kiwi players and coaches would note that the Australian sides had some big humans and liked to be direct, but perhaps lacked the deception and underlying skill base of the New Zealand teams.
The Wallabies coach admits the All Blacks remain a cut above.Credit:Getty
Rennie says the handling and footwork of the All Blacks’ tight forwards continues to set them apart, and that a serious amount of work is under way to try and improve so the Wallabies can at least match them.
But we still aren’t at the heart of the matter, so the Herald presses the coach on the part of the game that has always defined the great Wallabies sides: defence. We wonder that, if there was one area of progress above all others he would like to see against the French, would it be defence?
“Yep. That would be really important,” Rennie says. “Look, for a big part of last year we defended really well. We got towelled up by the All Blacks in Sydney but for a big chunk of the rest of that series we defended pretty well.
Rennie on …
The All Blacks’ choice at No.10:
- “[Ian Foster] is probably spoilt for choice isn’t he? Richie Mo’unga is the best No. 10 in the world. And Beauden Barrett…he’s had a full season at No 10 [in Japan] and keen to wrestle that jersey back.”
Head-high contact and yellow/red cards:
- “I was on the [World Rugby] committee that went through a lot of these policies … it is unanimous across the group that we’ve got to protect the player. There are rugby collisions, some are unavoidable. I look at [Tupou] Vaa’i yellow carded against the Waratahs for head contact with Will Harrison, that’s probably just a rugby collision. But there are times when the tackler has the option to go but they stay upright. But we have to have cards to create change and the last thing we want is having mothers not wanting their boys to play our game.”
The next Super Rugby Trans Tasman format and the spectre of COVID-19:
- “The interaction between us and New Zealand is really important, and important for both countries. But we’ll take whatever we can get in the end. Covid is still rearing its head and may have an influence on various things. But my preference has always been a round-robin comp.”
“But in those games, and the French are the same as the All Blacks, if you kick poorly and chase poorly, they can hurt you.”
And therein lies the key to the identity that Rennie is trying to give this Wallabies side. “There’s lots of areas where we need to [be] better, but from an identity point of view, we want to be seen as hard to beat,” he says. “That starts with your defence, complemented by the quality of your attack.”
Of course, it can be a dangerous game for a Wallabies coach, particularly a Kiwi one, to talk about defence, lest he stand accused of abandoning the so-called ‘Australian way’ of playing. But notwithstanding the fact that hard-shouldered defence is also the Australian way, Rennie is keenly aware that in the Test arena in recent years, the best sides without the ball have been successful.
Indeed, he wonders if it is not time for World Rugby to carefully address that imbalance. “I always think that when they tinker with the laws there’s often a defensive focus to it,” Rennie says.
“If anything we should be looking the other way. What we don’t want is the ball being slow and a wall being in front of people, and no footy played.
“What we don’t want is interpretations tending towards the defensive side.”
French flair meets Wigan steel
The missing names from the French squad have been well documented, but that only increases the difficulty of the three-Test series. Expectations of a Wallabies series win have been raised, and the French will feed off that. The fact that Wallabies back-rower Rob Valetini is already talking about being the No.1 side in the world will be more fuel for the visitors.
Rob Valetini this week said the Wallabies could be world No.1 by the end of the year.Credit:Andrew Phan/Wallabies media
But how will they play? Rennie has a fair idea, and he sees a link between the presence of Wigan rugby league legend Shaun Edwards on their coaching panel – he holds the defence portfolio, which he previously did at Wales – as central to their overall game plan.
“I think what we’ve seen with Shaun Edwards going there…obviously it’s a massive defensive focus but they’re kicking the ball a lot more too,” Rennie says.
Rennie on …
The French approach to turnovers:
- “It’ll be a combination of filling the field and post-tackle presence. They’ve got some guys who are very good over the ball. And a lot of their turnovers come from stripping. They’ll get two in the tackle and try to rip the ball out. We’ve got to be aware of the quality of our ball into contact, and getting body before ball.”
On managing James O’Connor over a 14-Test season:
- “If he’s right we’ll play him [in first Test]. If he’s not, we’ll be patient. We’ve got a really strong medical and S+C (strength and conditioning) group here. We’re doing everything to give all those [injured] guys an opportunity to come right as quickly as possible. But we’re not going to risk anyone. We’ve got some good young kids around No.10 and midfield.”
“When he was with Wales, if they’ve gone two or three phases and haven’t got what they want, they’ll kick because overplaying and turning over ball when your defence isn’t organised …you can get punished.
“But what that does is provide us with opportunities, because they are going to give us a lot of ball.
“We treat counterattack as a set piece. We’ve got a lot of structure around that and it’s going to be important. They’re going to kick a lot of ball to us.”
The challenges ahead
A smart investor wouldn’t put too much money on both James O’Connor and Matt To’omua starting in the first Test against the French on Wednesday.
Reborn Wallabies back James O’Connor faces a long season with the national side.Credit:Getty
In fact, neither may make it, with Rennie acknowledging that O’Connor had a ‘question mark’ beside his name while To’omua (neck) was facing a ‘race against time’.
“He’s just got a little bit of a hip flexor/groin issue,” Rennie said of O’Connor. “We’re not going to rush him though. We’ve got a little bit of versatility there with Noah Lolesio … and obviously we played Reece Hodge there last year too and he did really well for us.
“Matt has been out with a bit of a neck injury, so I guess it’s a race against time for him at the moment.”
Both would be big losses, for their experience as much as anything. There is palpable disappointment in Rennie’s voice when he mentions the injury-enforced absence of White (knee) at halfback, even though that blow may well be softened by the availability of Jake Gordon.
But there is also a determination in Rennie’s words. Big shifts are needed to get the Wallabies back to the top of the world but he detects a healthy appetite within his squad.
“This a big year for us,” he says. “We’ve got 14 Tests, all of them against strong opposition. It’s a really good program for us. We’ll learn a lot about each other and we’ll be in a lot better state by the end of the year.”
It’s time the Wallabies got those mountaineering boots on for the climb ahead.
Sports news, results and expert commentary. Sign up for our Sport newsletter.
Most Viewed in Sport
Source: Read Full Article