Persuading Dave Rennie to put his signature to the bottom of a contract may just be the best bit of business that Murrayfield’s director of rugby Scott Johnson has done for Scottish rugby. No one has a bad word to say about the Kiwi who is widely seen as an All Black coach in waiting.
Before Rennie arrived at the Chiefs the franchise was New Zealand’s equivalent of Edinburgh, well almost. Every season they flattered to deceive, showing glimpses of what they could do but rarely mixing it with the big boys at the sharp end of Super Rugby.
In the 16 years before Rennie arrived in Hamilton, the Chiefs had made the post-season play-offs on just two occasions, reaching the semis in 2004 and the 2009 final, which they lost. When Rennie arrived in 2012 they won the Super Rugby title for the first time and then backed it up the following season.
In fact the Chiefs were never out of the play-offs in the six seasons Rennie was at the helm, 2012-17, the only Super Rugby franchise which can make that claim.
The Chiefs had managed a 46 per cent winning margin before his arrival, in the six seasons under Rennie they notched 68 per cent which is, coincidentally, exactly Gregor Townsend’s winning margin in five years of Pro12 rugby with Glasgow.
The question is, how did Rennie work his magic on the Chiefs and can he repeat the same trick on a Glasgow side that managed just 11 wins in the league last season, scraping pass marks at 50 per cent?
The Kiwi coach has already stated that he won’t try to impose the Chiefs’ all-out-attack-from-all-corners-of-the-compass philosophy but frankly he doesn’t have to impose anything because Glasgow already play that way. The Warriors are the nearest thing in Europe to his old franchise that Rennie could find.
They already play a similar high-tempo game and on last weekend’s evidence, Rennie is going to double down on Townsend’s adventurous tactics. The Kiwi coach was sat the other side of a paper-thin wall from the media last Saturday when his side played Northampton Saints at Bridgehaugh and he could be heard, large and loud, exhorting his side to play with more pace and keep the ball in hand, not withstanding a healthy wind at Glasgow’s back.
He has a reputation for ignoring rugby reputations and picking players instead on character, preferring work horses over show ponies, “good buggers” as he would have it, a phase that became something of a watch word for Rennie back home.
The coach also spotted talent early on and lured the likes of Damien McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown up from the South Island to join the Chiefs long before they were handed national recognition by Steve Hansen.
Rennie is also an innovator, the first coach to appoint two captains, Liam Messam and Craig Clarke, when he first joined the Chiefs who also employed the “no ruck breakdown” long before Italy used the same tactic to bamboozle England in general and poor James Haskell in particular during last season’s Six Nations.
The Kiwi identified Europe’s obsession with defence as one of the main differences between the northern and southern halves of the globe which is why, he explained, we rarely get those basketball scores that are commonplace in Super Rugby.
For that reason alone Rennie won’t be able to reprint the Chiefs’ playbook and simply hand it out to eager Warriors. He will tweak things here and there but Rennie will almost certainly stick with a hard, fast, ball-in-hand style of play because he already has a significant Super Rugby cohort within his squad, not least fellow Kiwi coach Jason O’Halloran who Rennie briefly coached as a player.
With a host of players like Oli Kebble, Callum Gibbons, Brian Alainu’uese, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson, Lelia Masaga, Brandon Thomson and Ratu Tagive, Glasgow already have a healthy southern hemisphere contingent.
Throw into the mix Scottish backs like the slight but extravagantly skilled Finn Russell, a very handy substitute for Chiefs’ stand-off Aaron Cruden, and Stuart Hogg doing his Billy Whizz impersonation at the back. Add a host of ball playing breakaways like Ryan Wilson and Adam Ashe and suddenly the way forward becomes clear – just don’t expect Glasgow to throw the ball about willy nilly. It is in the forwards where the one-time centre Rennie may make the biggest impact.
Several times in the build up to this season the Kiwi has mentioned the need for a more competitive and skilful forward pack, the one facet that differentiates the All Blacks’ big men from the rest of rugby’s elite. He will have watched European losses to Munster (twice) and Saracens last season and know that Glasgow have to improve their forward play if they want to compete with the best.
But what marks Rennie out from the bulk of his competition isn’t the technical or the tactical, the bread and butter of coaching – he brings another dimension to a club even if it is difficult to define, as Lelia Masaga explained to Warriors TV recently.
“He [Rennie] is completely different from any coach I know,” said the winger who won two Super Rugby titles under Rennie and knows him better than most. It is a sentiment that is regularly repeated.
Rennie has the X-factor and while his ability to persuade players to empty themselves every time they cross the chalk is key to his success on the field, the New Zealander never loses sight of the bigger picture as illustrated by this comment just before his final Super Rugby game.
“Obviously winning is always nice,” Rennie replied when asked what pleased him most about his time with the Chiefs. “But I think the most satisfying thing as a coach is hopefully you look back in 20 years’ time and a lot of the guys that you’ve spent a lot of time with have gone on to have great lives and good families and used this game to set themselves up well in life.”
He is a good coach but, above all else, Dave Rennie is a good bugger, as he would have it.