THE eternal distrust between Australia and New Zealand has made Dave Rennie an easy scapegoat.
If he leads the Wallabies to victory in Sunday’s Bledisloe Cup opener in Wellington, he’ll be branded a traitor in his Kiwi homeland.
And if he doesn’t deliver on his quest to turn the Wallabies back into world beaters, his Australian critics will eat him for breakfast, screaming again from the rooftops about why New Zealanders should never be put in charge of the men in gold.
For proof, just ask Robbie Deans, who led the Wallabies to 44 victories from his 75 tests in charge at a better winning strike-rate than Eddie Jones, Michael Cheika and Ewen McKenzie.
Or Raelene Castle, the former CEO who was sent packing earlier this year after she hired Rennie for the job, convinced that his homespun philosophies on how to fix the Wallabies would work.
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The worst-kept secret in New Zealand rugby is that the All Blacks desperately need the Wallabies to be strong to validate their obsession with winning the Bledisloe Cup but for any Kiwi who agrees to help the enemy, it’s akin to stepping into the firing line and Rennie knows it.
“Obviously I‘m a Wellington boy so to play the first Test in Wellington, there’s a bit of irony there but I’m really excited,” he said.
“I‘m comfortable with the decision I made. I’m loving working with this group.
“Got good men as far as the players go, got fantastic management so we‘re all excited. Going to have all my family there, my three sons and two granddaughters are all coming down so that’s going to make it pretty special as well.”
Born on the same day U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Rennie already knows he’s got a target on his back. He’ll be damned if he succeeds and damned if he fails, but those that know him best say he’s equipped to handle it.
Sam Cane, the current All Blacks captain, is an apologetic admirer of Rennie. When he was just starting out in his senior career, Cane was a member of the Chiefs team that Rennie coached to win the 2012 and 2013 Super Rugby titles.
“I’ve had a lot to do with Rens over the years and there’s no doubt he’s an exceptional coach,” Cane said.
“He knows how he likes to play the game and he chooses personnel to fit that.
“He’s very good at bringing a team together and when a team that he’s coaching has their back against the wall they probably come out fighting the best, as I know from the past so it will be a massive challenge.“
World Cup winners Sam Whitelock and Aaron Smith also credit Rennie for their early development after playing under him for the Baby Blacks sides that he took to three straight junior world titles from 2008-2010.
“I had Rens for New Zealand under-20s as head coach and he was awesome, I really enjoyed how he brought the team together,” Whitelock said.
“Obviously a different environment with under-20s, a game every four days, and in a tournament like that it’s pretty ruthless because it’s short and compact. Rens did an awesome job for us, he was a big reason why we were successful.
“No doubt he’ll be doing the same with them (the Wallabies), he’ll be connecting them and it’s a challenge for us to make sure we’re just as connected, if not more.”
A stickler for detail, Rennie has already made a big impression on most of the people that matter in Australian rugby. He was in constant contact with each of the state coaches during lockdown and he personally reached out to some players that he had his eyes on, to reassure them he was paying attention and let them know what he was looking for.
One of the first things he did before starting the job was to insist on a 30% pay cut while players and Rugby Australia were also being docked money because of the financial crisis.
Both former and current Wallabies that have dealt with Rennie since he took over are sold on his hands-on approach as well as his determination to build a new Wallaby culture, embracing the eclectic makeup of the squad after the rifts caused by Israel Folau’s contentious departure last year.
During the pre-test camp in New Zealand, Rennie organised a guitar singalong, with Folau Fainga’a and Taniela Tupou, two of the quieter members of the squad, at least off the field, taking up the offer.
“It was just cool to see the boys engage in that and just learn about each other’s cultures,” Fainga’a said.
“(Rennie’s) cool off the field but when it’s time to train he’s got that flick and he’s into training mode and game mode but he’s made it clear to us that we need to pick up our intensity around things, it’s test weekend, the boys need to switch on.”
It’s time to shut these Kiwis up
NOW that New Zealand’s arrogance and bullying off the field has been exposed as nothing more than just false bravado, it’s time to shut the Kiwis up on the field.
Wiping the smiles off New Zealand’s smug officials in the boardroom and in the court of public opinion has been long overdue but it isn’t enough to satisfy Australia’s long-suffering Wallaby supporters.
What everyone really wants to see is the Wallabies spank the All Blacks on the field, starting with Sunday’s Bledisloe Cup series opener in Wellington – and the Australian received a boost with a late drama in the All Blacks camp.
Two-time world player of the year Beauden Barrett withdrew from the match because of an Achilles injury.
He has been replaced at fullback by Damian McKenzie, who was in the initial 23-man squad.
Early indications are Barrett will be available next week’s second test at Eden Park but his withdrawal from the series opener is a setback for the men in black.
Never shy when it comes to talking themselves up, the Kiwis don’t give the Wallabies any chance of winning but the Australian captain Michael Hooper can feel the changed mood in the camp after last year’s disastrous World Cup.
“It is the start of the new era,” he said.
“Covid aside, it would have felt different but with covid as well, everything’s shuffled, everything’s changed and we’ve been able to play on that a bit and enjoy the change that’s come.
“There’s a new coaching staff, a lot of new players in the environment, and a new level of enthusiasm around wanting to get our hands on the jersey, wanting to perform in the jersey, and wanting to do some things that we’ve talked about as a team.”
Hooper and Marika Koroibete are the only survivors from the Wallaby team that started in last year’s World Cup quarterfinal loss to England.
New coach Dave Rennie has picked three debutants in his first run-on side – loose forward Harry Wilson, outside centre Hunter Paisami and Fijian-born winger Filipo Daugunu, plus Brumbies rookie Noah Lolesio on the bench.
For Hooper, Sunday’s match will be his 100th test for the Wallabies, a milestone only 12 other Australians have reached, but he’s not reminiscing just yet.
That will have to wait because he has too much unfinished business to attend to first, starting with beating the All Blacks in New Zealand for the first time and winning back the Bledisloe Cup which has been in Kiwi hands since 2003.
“A lot of those guys who have reached the milestone and texted me said it’s something you’ll reflect on a bit later down the track and I think I’ll be taking that path as well,” Hooper said.
The first rugby test to be anywhere in the world in 2020, the build up to Sunday’s afternoon match has been like no other Hooper has experienced.
The team’s been training together for only three weeks, with the last two spent in quarantine in Christchurch, with the team only flying into the New Zealand capital on Saturday afternoon.
But some things – the desperation to win – remain exactly the same.
“It’s a different environment in a lot of ways but a different good, it’s been really enjoyable but we’ve got to play a game now, that’s where we’re at.
“We’ve been talking as a group for a long period of time but training for three or four weeks now so it’s time to play, we’re ready to go.”
15-Tom Banks, 14-Filipo Daugunu, 13-Hunter Paisami, 12-Matt Toomua, 11-Marika Koroibete, 10-James O‘Connor, 9-Nic White, 8-Pete Samu, 7-Michael Hooper (captain), 6-Harry Wilson 5-Matt Philip, 4-Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 3-Taniela Tupou, 2-Folau Fainga’a, 1-James Slipper.
Replacements: Jordan Uelese, 17. Scott Sio, 18. Allan Alaalatoa, 19. Rob Simmons, 20. Rob Valetini, 21. Jake Gordon, 22. Noah Lolesio, 23. Reece Hodge
15-Damian McKenzie, 14-Jordie Barrett, 13-Rieko Ioane, 12-Jack Goodhue, 11- George Bridge, 10-Richie Mo‘unga, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Ardie Savea, 7-Sam Cane (captain), 6-Shannon Frizell, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Patrick Tuipulotu, 3-Ofa Tuungafasi, 2-Codie Taylor, 1-Joe Moody
Replacements: 16-Dane Coles, 17-Karl Tu‘inukuafe, 18-Nepo Laulala, 19-Tupou Vaa’i, 20-Hoskins Sotutu, 21-TJ Perenara, 22-Anton Lienert-Brown, 23-Caleb Clarke