By Chips Blanch

 When I started writing this article in response to Scott Wisemantel resigning it was obviously a very different piece. It spoke about his resignation as being the first real moment that my faith in Dave Rennie’s stewardship had been shaken, as I strongly believed the coaching staff was good enough to turn things around. 

Yes, 2022 had been subpar but there were a lot of valid justifications for those performances and indicators that once things like injuries, player availability and back of house issues were taken care of, the Wallabies would be in a position to have a serious tilt at the World Cup. 

The article would surmise that Rennie deserved to take the team to the World Cup but could not in good conscience be offered an extension prior to the big dance based on 2022 results, a program that resulted in a lot of injuries, and a style of play that was not delivering results against the best teams except for when a 34 year old former test outcast was steering the ship.

Now that Dingo Dave has been given the sack all the above is dross and we need to prepare for the second coming of Eddie Jones and all it entails. As an aside, it seems like par for the course that Rugby Australia hire Eddie after just losing the man that combined with him for one of the great All Black humblings in 2019. 

So before I distract myself by getting into the intrigue surrounding the hiring of Jones, this article has become a reflection on Dave Rennie’s tenure and the positives that have come from it, and it is mostly positives.

The first thing that needs to be remembered is the shit show he inherited. The Wallabies haemorrhaged key players after 2019, the provincial system was in dire straits with only a single Australian win on Kiwi soil in something like 5 years, and the governing body had no money with a financial windfall not expected until 2025. 

COVID then struck in the first year of his tenure which meant disjointed preparation, even less revenue for the governing body, and the loss of our third tier NRC. In hindsight it sounds like everything that could go wrong did, but the other side of that coin is he was given one of the best coaching staffs in recent memory along with overseas eligibility relaxations. 

When taking all the above into account you can understand why it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Rennie and it is a credit to him that there are two tangible improvements that have come about during his stint. These are the improvements in fitness and player depth. 

Fitness is something he identified early in the piece, as under Michael Cheika the Wallabies were notorious for getting blown away in the last 20 minutes of games. Rennie has turned the Wallabies into an 80 minute team and that kind of improvement, while necessary, can likely be attributed to the unprecedented injury run the team had in 2022. I don’t think it excuses the amount of injuries suffered but if the findings of the review are made public we will certainly be able to draw better conclusions as to where the blame lies.

Player depth is something that is often overlooked by Rennie detractors, while others claim he hasn’t gone out on a limb enough when it comes to selections. I believe he found the right balance of experience and picking on potential as a player like Len Ikitau was unheralded when Rennie first brought him into camp, and despite the doubters of that move, he quickly went on to be one of our first selections in the starting team. 

He has brought plenty of the now famous 2019 Under 20’s team through to the senior side, as well as exposed squad players to the point that if a possibles vs probables game was played, I believe it would be close to a coin toss as to who would win. A far cry from the back end of the Cheika era.

In my view the only real red cross in his column is the Wallabies play has been mostly stagnant over his term. As part of looking for reasons why Wisemantel jumped ship I considered the increasingly popular narrative that the Wallabies are in the middle of a Brumby-ifcation. The ponies don’t play like a team Wisemantel involved sides espouse so some of the more imaginative punters believe Wisemantel might have departed because of the Brumby-ifcation. 

Unfortunately for the missus, figuring out if the Wallabies play has changed in response to certain coaching staff appointments involved watching the first few test matches in 2020 along with other key matches throughout the last 3 years, culminating in a rewatch of some of the latest Spring Tour games.

Even after just 10 mins of that first Bledisloe game in 2020, you could see issues that are persisting to this day with the attack. James O'Connor at five eighth was going into breakdowns rather than setting up the next phase, and extended phases with ball in hand were not bearing fruit. On the odd occasion where O'Connor got the ball early and on the front foot, we created opportunities and looked a little dangerous but couldn't always capitalise. Sounds familiar right?

What's even more frustrating is that the support play issues that are really hurting the Wallabies lately were evident then, and are part of the reason O'Connor (then and now) had to go into so many rucks. In those first two games in 2020 his opposite Richie Mo'unga steers the ship phase after phase because someone else in a black jersey is always there to cleanout. They get greater pay out of building phases because the maestro doesn’t go missing part way through. 

Rewatching that first Bledisloe really burns as it is another in the long list of games the Wallabies should have won but didn’t because we were lacking in the same parts of the game they are at the moment, so why do people think there has been this shift in the way we play?

That is because of the run we went on in 2021 with Quade Cooper at the helm. He demanded the ball more often, made better decisions than what we had been used to and varied his game to the point the opposition defence sat on their heels trying to figure out what he was going to do next. 

That he was able to be so effective is partly due to the improvement in the general play of our forwards under Rennie. Our piggies are more physical and much better at getting over the gain line than prior to his involvement which allowed Cooper more opportunities. The class of Cooper is what turned those opportunities into points often through something as simple as varying the speed of his pass. 

Unfortunately that brand of rugby turned out to be impossible without Cooper, and it begs the question whether Rennie and Wisemantel's game plan was too aspirational for the majority of the group? Worrying for that state of the game here if so.

Regardless, 2022 saw the Wallabies revert to the 2020 model and culminated in an Italian job that was particular damning with respect to the footy the Wallabies played. I don’t subscribe to the notion that loss happened because of rotating selections. We put a good team on the park that on paper should have been able to do the job. The main frustration was the Italians played the kind of footy we should've but were unable to.

So I don’t believe a Brumbies style of footy is eroding the Wallaby setup. The positives of the Cooper led run in 2021 turned out to be specific to him and the 2022 Wallabies play was reminiscent of Rennie's first year in charge.. Ultimately the head coach has to take responsibility for that, but on the facts currently available you are drawing a long bow to suggest that replacing him now will change the trajectory we were on for the World Cup. 

Key players will be returning from injury, the staff will have had an extended period with our overseas contingent, and at least three of the five Australian Super Rugby teams should have had competitive seasons.

This was the case at least until Wisemantel resigned. Hopefully one day we will find out if it was in response to Rennie’s impending termination, disagreement on the direction of the team, or family reasons and other commercial opportunities as stated. It’s unlikely given their success together, but it might even be that Wisemantel just didn’t want to work with Eddie again.

Despite his winning record I still firmly believe the Wallabies are in a better position than when Rennie took over. He has instilled a lot of ticker in the playing group and built depth to the point our first choice 23 will trouble whoever we come up against, even if there was another shocking run of injuries. 

The players he has blooded should be peaking come 2025 and 2027, and much like Phil Mooney at the Reds, Rennie might be remembered as the guy that made a winning title run possible... Time will tell.

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