Had you told someone at the end of 2013 that in seven years’ time Dave Rennie would be preparing to take charge of his first Bledisloe Cup test, they would more than likely have assumed New Zealand would be the team under his stewardship.
Wayne Smith was not the only person at that time who thought Rennie would make a good All Blacks coach “some time down the line”.
The former teacher had just guided the Chiefs to a second successive Super Rugby crown, alongside Smith, having led New Zealand to three consecutive World Rugby U20 Championship titles between 2008-10.
Rennie looked to be navigating a course set for the All Blacks job. But, instead he took a detour to Scotland with Glasgow Warriors in 2017, where he enjoyed three largely positive, if trophyless, years.
Last November, following Australia’s quarter-final exit from Rugby World Cup 2019, the call came to replace Michael Cheika as Wallabies coach.
Rennie accepted and, at the end of May, the 56-year-old left Scotland to become the second Kiwi, and the first of Polynesian heritage, to coach the Australian men’s national team.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has delayed his debut in the hot seat, but last month Rennie picked a 44-man squad for the upcoming test season that provided an indication of the task he faces over the next two months, and beyond.
Few would expect the Wallabies to defeat the All Blacks in Wellington on Sunday or Auckland seven days later, while their opponents will also start as favourites in the Rugby Championship next month.
Rennie himself marvelled at the options available to incoming New Zealand coach Ian Foster, as he highlighted the omission of Chiefs flanker Lachlan Boshier from last month’s North Island v South Island match.
“He (Boshier) didn't even make the North Island side. That tells you about the depth of New Zealand rugby,” Rennie said. “But in the end they can only put 15 on the field at once, so we'll be working hard to make sure we've got a side that can compete.”
The squad that Rennie has picked to compete against his countrymen contains 16 uncapped players and a further 10 who have played nine tests or fewer. This is a three-year process for the former Chiefs and Glasgow coach, who will hope he has selected a group that can grow together on the road to France 2023.
The good news for Wallabies fans is that he has a track record of turning potential into results. “Teaching, coaching, it's the same thing,” he said in 2013. “The kids are just a bit bigger.”
Moulding a winning team
Rennie gave an insight into his approach with the Chiefs following their Super Rugby 2013 triumph, stating that the team “had always had quite a few rock stars, but lacked a few workers”.
That is not quite true of his Wallabies squad. His predecessor Cheika based his approach on a physically combative attacking philosophy, similar to the one that served Rennie so well with the Chiefs.
It means the New Zealander has a familiar base to work on as he gets started with the Wallabies. However, what is true is that he has several established stars — captain Michael Hooper, James O’Connor and Marika Koroibete among them — around whom he can build a hard-working, attacking team.
Rennie has not been afraid to leave out big names, with Isi Naisarani, Jack Dempsey and Tevita Kuridrani all looking on at Australia’s new dawn from the outside.
By contrast, it is an exciting time for the 16 uncapped players, many of whom have shone for Australia in recent editions of the World Rugby U20 Championship.
Rennie’s own relationship with that tournament should bode well for Fraser McReight, Noah Lolesio and co. The Kiwi coach won the U20 Championship in each of his three years in charge of New Zealand, helping to develop the talent of Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Ryan Crotty, Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea, Sean Maitland and many others in the process.
In his most recent role, with Glasgow Warriors, Rennie aided the growth of Scott Cummings, Adam Hastings and George Horne from promising PRO14 players into established internationals.
Rennie expanded on his approach to developing talent on and off the pitch in Australia, as he discussed changing the narrative surrounding the Wallabies during an interview that appeared in the August edition of Rugby World.
“I’ve been impressed by a lot of things around Australian rugby,” Rennie said. “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.”
How the Wallabies perform in Wellington on Sunday will give Rennie an understanding of the size of the job he has undertaken. A win over the next fortnight would certainly be a welcome bonus.
But, even two heavy defeats would not deter the New Zealander from his mission to turn a young and talented group of players into Rugby World Cup contenders.