Personality clash that led to RA culling ‘Kumbaya’ Dave for a ‘feral, mongrel genius’

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It was a few days before the Sydney Test between Australia and England and Eddie Jones was holding court on familiar ground at the Coogee Bay Hotel.

With Dave Rennie and his Australian squad still hunkered down in Queensland before a late arrival on game eve, the job of hyping the decisive Test, in fact the game of rugby itself to Sydneysiders, was left to the Australian coach of the touring team.

It had been a similar story in Perth and then Brisbane where Eddie worked hard on spreading the gospel and Dave and his good men spoke to the media over Zoom, declining to embrace the local rugby communities.

Jones went from that media conference to a session with junior and grassroots players at Latham Park in Coogee.

Whatever you make of Dave or Eddie there is something undeniable about the game that has made them wealthy – rugby in Australia is the poor cousin when it comes to media coverage and public cut through compared to other codes.

One man during that series seemed seriously hurt by rugby’s plight and desperate to fight for its status in Australia – and it wasn’t the man you might reasonably expect it should be.

“I’ve been disappointed in the media coverage,” said Jones at his Coogee press conference – one that went on to cover plenty of ground about the state of the game not only in this country but around the world.

“I try to watch the news every morning. And there’s nothing on it about rugby at all. As a person that grew up with rugby here that’s disappointing. We need rugby to be strong sport and World Rugby needs Australia to be a strong rugby country.

“There’s always a battle with NRL and AFL isn’t it? We know that. We need rugby to be bit more prominent. So I think we’re doing our bit. I’ve been charity lunch today going out to coach in the community tonight. We’re trying to build the game up – a 1-1 decider. There’s got to be equal effort from the other team too.”

Perhaps Rennie, as someone from a country where rugby is the undisputed No.1 sport, struggled to understand rugby’s precarious hold on the Australian sports landscape.

Coach Eddie Jones gives a smile during the England Rugby squad captain’s run at Suncorp Stadium on July 08, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The Wallabies had left England with the heavy PR lifting in Perth and Brisbane too. Asked if the Wallabies should have been doing more, Jones responded: “That’s not for me to judge. You can judge that.”

In contrast to Jones, Rennie spoke often but said little. That’s not a criticism, just an observation of his style. Rennie wouldn’t be the first coach who preferred to keep his cards close to the chest.

He recoiled at perceived negativity – calling out reporters when they tried to dig into his tactics or decisions. He was mostly open and direct and answered every question, although at times not with the insight or passion that his employers might have wanted. And while Rennie could be guarded, he could also throw a barb at his employers.

One glaring late example came in November, when Rennie was asked for his reaction to an idea floated by Hamish McLennan – RA’s chairman – of a Lions vs. ANZAC XV fixture on their 2025 tour Down Under.

Fans in both hemispheres embraced the idea, with plenty Down Under heading online to name their potential combined Wallabies-All Blacks team for 2025.

McLennan’s proposal came at a time when Australia and New Zealand were still haggling over the future of Super Rugby.

“It’s above my paygrade,” Rennie said of the ANZAC XV. “I’m not sure around those discussions and probably more important is sorting out a domestic competition between the two countries as opposed to playing a team or picking a team that represents both countries.

“It’ll be interesting to see whether there’s any validity in that.”

Rennie’s blunt public dismissal of his boss’s pet project was jarring at the time, regardless if you think that McLennan’s mooted idea was a sideshow or frippery.

The code is and was facing multiple deep lying problems and challenges – the pathways that seem broken as the best talent heads to the NRL, the embarrassing lack of funding for the women’s game, the ever-shifting Giteau Law that prevents the Wallabies’ coach from choosing his absolute best XV.

Of course, the idea was a headline sugar hit – as much as leaked stories about big name NRL raids have been.

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Rennie’s failure to note that prevailing wind seems to be as much an ingredient of his downfall as his 38 percent win record. The Kiwi was never really McLennan’s man, having been installed in the job by Raelene Castle, and so lacked credit in the bank.

McLennan had already met with Jones in July and on Tuesday Christy Doran reported RA was impressed by the “curious nature of Jones, always looking to improve and engage with people from all walks of life.”

It’s clear from McLennan’s colourful statements on Sydney radio on Tuesday that he was excited more by the rocky road of Jones than the vanilla of Rennie.

“He’s forensic in his approach and he’s tough. He’s tactically a genius in my opinion,” McLennan told Sky Sports Radio’s The Big Sports Breakfast.

“You’ve got somebody who grew up in Sydney club rugby knows those pathways, is dynamic and will bring a deft touch to everything that we do.

“He’s tough. I want that sort of slightly feral, slightly mongrel sort of Australian characteristic to come out and we’ve got to be a bit tougher and more persistent on the field and he’ll bring it out. People evolve and change in life.

“He’s a better coach than he was 20 years ago. He’s the first to say that he’s changed. I know polarises people but buckle up, it’s going to be fun.”

Of course, McLennan could have left it there, but there was a parting shot for the departing coach.

Rennie has been credited for instilling a tight culture within the Wallabies – and was known for regularly pulling out the guitar to lead singalongs in camp. His sacking was the day the music died.

“In my working career, I’ve had the great fortune of working with some very colorful personalities,” said McLennan when asked about Jones’ reputation as being hard to work with.

“And so that doesn’t faze me whatsoever. I would rather we have somebody who’s really tough and we win World Cups, than we have a Kumbaya session, everyone holds hands and we fail.”

For this writer, who has been in almost every Dave Rennie press conference for the past two years, that Coogee Bay Hotel audience with Eddie was enlightening.

He had been prickly and combative after losing in Perth, then funny and expansive in the aftermath of Brisbane.

Australia were coached by a pragmatist, who placed results over everything else and then didn’t get them. Maybe if he had, then his lack of the personality trait required by RA – the salesmanship for an ailing game – wouldn’t have mattered.

England were coached by an evangelist. A pulpit pounder who will drag the game back into the spotlight through force of personality.

There is no doubt which one Australian rugby desperately needs as it looks to take advantage of the 2025 Lions tour and World Cups in 2027 and 2029.

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