HE MAY resemble a whirling dervish on the rugby field but, in the sanctity of one of Murrayfield’s hospitality suites, Ross Rennie turns out to be polite, friendly and surprisingly softly spoken for a man who earns a living by doling it out in the dark, brutal and unforgiving world of Test match rugby.
Rennie is in an odd place at the moment. On a personal level the Scottish flanker has been at the vanguard of a forward effort that has occasionally bordered on the heroic. After coming off the bench for nine of his first 11 caps Rennie has recently earned the No.7 shirt by right, an automatic for Scotland although he still rotates with Roddy Grant at club level. The purists are drooling over his partnership with the strapping David Denton, even if most acknowledge that a proper balance won’t be achieved until the injured Kelly Brown returns to the fray.
Things look a little different from a team perspective, where it’s a case of same old, same old as the Scots find ever more inventive ways of losing rugby matches. A charge down caused the damage against England, not to mention spurning several open goals, while two yellow cards did for the Scots in Cardiff. Is it fair to say that the overwhelming mood in the Scotland camp is one of frustration?
“I’d say frustration was a very good word,” says Rennie and it peppers his conversation throughout the course of the interview. “I’d say everyone is frustrated... We are frustrated, everyone realises we’ve made a huge effort but there’s not much come from it yet. It is very frustrating where we are right now, who likes losing?”
It’s probably fair to say that Rennie is a tad frustrated, but that sentiment has been a close companion to the flanker over the course of a bumpy professional career. He earned his first cap off the bench in Dublin four years ago but then had a two-and-a-half-year gap before winning his second against the All Blacks in 2010 after a knee problem kept him out of the game for 14 long and, yes, frustrating months. Even when he returned to action for Edinburgh he could play no more than one in every three matches.
There is a standard clause in almost every player’s contract that allows a club to dismiss anyone who has not been able to play the game for six months. By not invoking that clause Scottish Rugby displayed admirable support to Rennie throughout those long miserable months of rehabilitation and the little flanker is pleased to be able to repay the debt with a couple of outstanding performances that have only been blighted by one howler.
Playing against England, Rennie suddenly found himself in open water with support on his left and only the full-back Ben Foden to beat. Rennie dallied too long, Foden closed him down and 60,000-odd Scottish fans did their own impression of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
“When I went through I saw Greig [Laidlaw] but he was covered [by defenders] and I didn’t see Mike [Blair] at all,” recalls Rennie. “Then I looked back and I did see Mike but I just looked for too long. There were a hundred things I would have done differently. I lost a reasonable amount of sleep on it last week.”
The popular flanker has not suffered too badly at the hands of frustrated fans but the same cannot be said of all his colleagues. Nick De Luca gave away a needless yellow card in Cardiff and collected so much flak on Twitter last week that he suspended his account. It is physically and emotionally exhausting losing every week, so does Rennie still have fun playing for Scotland?
“Is it fun?” He is thinking out loud and continues only after a long pause. “I don’t think it’s ever fun losing but, at the same time, I feel very proud and very happy to be in this position where we can try to put it right.”
To borrow from Charles Dickens on the 200th anniversary of his birth, Scotland’s season started with Great Expectations but already the season resembles Bleak House. Wales are a good side, full of confidence and class, but others were there for the taking. A Scotland team that was renowned for adding up to more than the sum of its individual parts has now lost twice to teams they obviously should have beaten, Argentina in Wellington and England in Edinburgh, a tale of two cities if you like.
“The Argentina game, such a horrible loss that one, was backed up by another couple [of losses],” said Rennie. “At the start of the Six Nations we were all riding high, looking forward to the England game again, and we get kicked back down again. You’re playing with such highs and lows. I don’t think that any normal job has that unless maybe a London stockbroker who is playing with millions.
“The nice thing is that we have an opportunity to put it right, I suppose, and get back to the highs. On those big occasions you experience big highs when you win and big lows when you lose.”
In that respect Rennie mirrors the national coach Andy Robinson, whose unfolding agonies are followed in grisly detail by the BBC camera on the coaches’ box. The two men have much in common and it’s just possible that the coach sees something of his younger self in his Scottish protégé. It isn’t difficult to see why one short, aggressive flanker might make common cause with another from the same mould but those losses to inferior sides mean that Robinson’s own position has come under scrutiny. It is little surprise to find Rennie standing four square behind the coach.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with him [Robinson] for a few years when he came to Edinburgh. We do know each other pretty well and I think he knows my game pretty well which is helpful. He knows how to speak to me to have an influence on what I’m doing and make me better. I like to think I take criticism quite well and he’s very good to go through a video with.”
Will another miserable Six Nations persuade the coach to walk?
“I know nothing about that,” says the player who knows Robinson better than most. “I think he is still very much the right man for the job.
“The coaches are very good, it’s just a matter of tweaking a few things and, hopefully, it will all click. We have been making line breaks and not finishing two-on-ones. We have been compounding errors and, when you have a couple of mistakes, that is when these teams score tries.”
It was Teddy Roosevelt who popularised the phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick” but Rennie appears to have adopted it with one small amendment. The Scot speaks softly and carries a simmering frustration that suggests, if Scotland can put all the pieces of the Test match jigsaw together, some side or other may yet be in for a nasty surprise this season.
A full house next Sunday at Murrayfield will hope it’s France.