hail to the chief

IS THERE ANYONE, ANYWHERE WHO HAS A BAD WORD TO SAY ABOUT THE GLASGOW WARRIORS’ NEW HEAD HONCHO, DAVE RENNIE? IT SEEMS NOT. AND IF YOU’VE EVER MET THE FORMER CHIEFS’ CHIEF, YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHY.

He can strum a guitar, he can swipe a six iron; he can crank up a chainsaw, crack you a joke, stand you a beer and, given a bag of nails, ten planks of wood and a hammer, knock you up a very respectable hen house. In fact, a year or two back, he did just that for Mrs. Rennie for her birthday.

‘Well, Steph was all set to buy one on the Internet,’ he says, ‘and it was going to cost a couple of thousand bucks – tiny little thing – and I said I could build something four times the size for half the price. I admit it got to two days before her birthday and she was putting a bit of heat on but, yeah, it looks like a hotel now.’

There’s a small pause in the conversation. He’s smiling – not unusual – and I’m frowning – also not unusual.
‘You gave your wife a hen house for her birthday?’
‘She had thirty chooks.’
‘But as a birthday present?’
‘Look, she’s very practical, my wife. And it wasn’t like I bought her a lawnmower or anything.’

World-class Head Coaches are invariably embedded in rock-solid marriages – I’m not sure why this is but it just is – and Dave Rennie’s no exception on either count: indeed, he and Steph have been married for twenty-eight years – ‘she deserves a medal’ – they have three boys whom they’ve left back in New Zealand – ‘they’re twenty-seven, twenty-six and twenty-five; they can look after themselves’- and they’ve two Maltese Shiatsus called Boston and Sophie whom they’ve brought to Scotland – ‘it cost more to fly them over here than it did us but they’re ‘cute as’ and keep the wife happy.’
‘Are they better company than you, then?
‘Well, she spends more time with them than she does me, that’s for sure.’

So far, all four of them are loving it. They’ve just moved into a place in Stirling in the shadow of the Wallace Monument – ‘Daveheart’ – in a beautiful spot with some character, some pasture and where they’ve got ‘a bit of a view’ of both the castle and – inevitably – the local rugby club. All that’s left to sort out now is the Scottish vernacular. ‘Finn Russell cuts every word in half and goes pretty quick,’ says Rennie, ‘so he’s the toughest to understand, I reckon, but, no, most of them are pretty good.’

Certainly the players are receiving the new Head Coach loud and clear, partly because he has a voice that carries to all corners of the parade ground but mostly because they like what they’re hearing. Indeed, from the dressing room’s perspective, losing Gregor Townsend and gaining Dave Rennie was like breaking up with Jennifer Lawrence on Friday evening and getting engaged to Kate Upton first thing Monday morning.

‘As soon as they announced that Dave was the Head Coach, there was this air of excitement around,’ says Glasgow’s fly half, Peter Horne. ‘We all started following the Chiefs, getting up on a Saturday morning to watch Super Rugby and see how they were doing. They play a great brand and style of rugby but they’ve got that hard, brutal edge to them as well which was something we felt we really had a couple of years ago. We were a team no one liked to play, we’d find a way to win in any situation and that’s something we’re aspiring to be again. Looking at Dave’s teams that’s something they’ve got; they’re never dead and they’re never out of it.’

Rennie, clearly, is one hell of a coach, not that you have to take my word for it. ‘Special’, says Wayne Smith. ‘Imagine him as AB coach some time down the line; genial, values people and fairness.’ Ryan Wilson agrees. ‘He’s what a Kiwi would call ‘a good bugger’,’ says the man Rennie’s just anointed as the Glasgow Warriors new captain. ‘And he’s passionate about keeping this club a family club and making sure we drive those values. I’ve got three little kids and if the family’s happy, the players are happy and perform well. I got a good feeling off him about that.’

Private Ryan’s commission surprised a few, not least Private Ryan. ‘He sat me down and he said, what do you think about captaincy and I said, who’re you talking about and he said, I’m talking about you, you idiot, and I said, bloody hell, yeah, I’d love it, it’d be an honour’; this – for the record – from a man who not only wears Glasgow Warriors’ underpants but who’ll cheerfully prove it if challenged.

‘Why did he ask me?’ he continues. ‘Well, he said I’m a guy that can have a bit of fun off the pitch, which he likes, but then I can cross the chalk and get serious and switch on to rugby mode and he liked that too. He said I’d got a bit of a background, a bit of a history, a bit of an edge about me and he also saw a part of me that can put an arm round a player and help him out and bring young guys through.’

‘So is there a pay rise being captain?’
‘Ah, well, I’ve been trying to wangle that, but no.’
‘Your own car-parking space?’
‘No, but that’s a bloody good idea. I’ll be after Dave on that one. That’s free and easily do-able. I’ll get ‘SKIPS’ painted on the tarmac. Nice.’

Wilson is, in many ways, a hallmark selection, not that Rennie believes in hallmarks. What he believes in are characters, ‘good buggers’ – yes, those two words again – and, as he described it during his time at the Chiefs, a team that ‘has some skin in the game’. It’s a glorious phrase.

‘You look at this competition and there’s a lot of good teams,’ he says, ‘so I reckon to make a difference you have to create a culture where people understand who they are and what they represent; that they’re playing for something bigger than themselves. And to do that you’ve got to get out and you’ve got to meet people. If you want bums on seats, you’ve got to show that you care as well and the interaction’s got to be genuine as opposed to an artificial handshake and an autograph in twenty seconds. We really pushed that at the Chiefs. It brings the team together.’

Rennie had his players hitch-hiking from Hamilton to the Bay of Plenty; they did coaching sessions in every one-horse town in the region. The squad knocked down walls and painted the training base at Ruakura and Rennie and Wayne Smith took on speaking engagements Waikato-wide and put the money back into the club for player development.

‘We did a lot of stuff that was culturally based; we looked at Maori battles and drew strength from those,’ he says. ‘There was charity work and visits to sick kids in hospitals and when you see the big smiles on their faces and you realise how courageous those kids are, the only way you can honour that is by showing the same sort of strength and courage on Saturday.’

No question, Rennie’s a winner. He made a cake out of stale crumbs in Manawatu, won an NPC with Wellington, coached the New Zealand U20s to three, successive World Titles and won back to back Super Rugby titles in his first two seasons with the Chiefs, the maiden final win at the Waikato Stadium in 2012 – miserably – coinciding with burglars taking advantage of his empty house and ripping out the family safe. ‘It certainly put a dampener on the night,’ he told the ‘Waikato Times’, which must have been understatement cubed.

But in six years with the – until then – moribund Chiefs, he was never out of the Super Rugby play-offs and upped a lousy 45.88% win ratio to a hefty 68.27%, a number bested by only the Crusaders. Indeed, twelve of Rennie’s boys became All Blacks; among them fly half, Aaron Cruden.

‘He puts time into his players,’ says Cruden. ‘It’s all about the little skills and the little details, so that when you’re under pressure out on the field, it’s just second nature. And he was always able to challenge me in a way that would make me think about things differently; always prepared to evolve and develop so that you don’t get stale or stuck in thinking there’s only one way to do things.’

‘I think that’s because he really cares about his players. He gets to know them as people as well as rugby players, and when you’ve got a coach like that, you just feel really secure in the fact you know you’re going out there for more than just yourself.’

Not surprisingly, the Cruden/Rennie Appreciation Society is mutual, given they spent ten years together. ‘The boys all used to tease me about him being my son but we were pretty close and he’s a very special man, a phenomenal rugby brain,’ says Rennie. ‘When the heat comes on, his ability to create space for others is top notch so, yeah, he’s a quality man and I loved my time with him. I couldn’t afford to bring him here – it would’ve meant me working for nothing – but he’ll be great for Montpellier and we’ll have to get a plan around him when we meet up in the Champions’ Cup come December time.’

But Rennie has brought in other Kiwis such as Lelia Masaga and Callum Gibbins – ‘now, he’s a seriously good guitarist’ – who can help fill the holes when half the squad heads off with Scotland; the SRU, he says, understanding that ‘there has to be a balance that’s in the best interests of Glasgow and Scotland.’ So, once again, the Warriors will be rotating more than most, not that the Head Coach is too unhappy about that.

‘I’ve probably been criticised back home for rotating our squad a lot but I’ve always found it creates competition for places and depth. And I know when we won our title in 2013 we had a lot of guys on the bench who’d made ten or eleven starts so I think it made a massive difference in the last twenty when you’re bringing guys on who’re confident. Look, you get yourself in the race and you try to be the best team in the competition in the last three weeks, that’s the key.’

And being the best team in competition in the last three weeks is the unswerving aim. Asked what his ambition was for his first year in the Pro14, Rennie – no hesitation – said, ‘winning it’. Asked when the rest of us should start to make judgments about how good a job he’s doing, he said, ‘first game, I guess’. He doesn’t do excuses, largely, you suspect, because he’s never needed to.

‘Look, in an ideal world I’d have been here three months ago, not three weeks ago. But we’ve had meetings and long conversations, I’ve been over three times in the past year and I’ve been heavily involved in all the contracting. All the coaches have done a great job and I don’t think I have to be ‘The Boss’. I want it to be an inclusive team that challenges each other, so just because, for example, Kenny Murray’s running defence doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have a say in how we might do things better.‘

Journalistically, Rennie’s not a man you want to profile on a tight word-count given how many stories there are to tell. For instance, he was born on 22nd November 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated – ‘yeah, it’s an infamous date, I guess, but my Mum reckoned some good came out of the day although I’m not sure anyone else would agree with that’ – and he made his one international appearance for the Cook Islands – the land of said mother – while he was on holiday.

‘I’ll be honest, I got roped in,’ he says. ‘I got asked to play and I said no, I didn’t think I was fit enough but I went down to lend a hand and the next thing I knew, I was playing. Aw, it was a great honour – it wasn’t a Test match or anything – but I had a water-boy whose sole job was to stay near me. It was pretty hard ground and playing in January in Rarotonga was a bit warm but the family were over at the same time, so it was cool.’

For a while he was a teacher at an Intermediate School in Upper Hutt – ‘coaching’s similar, it’s just the kids are a bit bigger’ – for a time he ran a pub called ‘The Lonely Goat Herd’ and relaxation back on the ranch back in Palmerston North was revving up the chainsaw – make that chainsaws, he has several – and leveling some timber. ‘It’s just a good way to clear the head,’ he says. ‘I used to like going out for even an hour at the end of the day and forgetting about things. Plus it’s good firewood and it saves paying for heating.’

His deal with Glasgow is for two years with an option on a third and – unlike some in this league – he fully intends to honour it. ‘Look, I went to Manawatu for eighteen weeks and ended up being there for six years. I didn’t think I’d end up having six seasons with the Chiefs, either. We’ll commit to two years and know a bit more once we get into things.’

It’ll certainly give him time to investigate his heritage, which – given he’s a Rennie – appears to tartan. Might he, for example, be a descendant of Glasgow’s famous son, Charles Rennie Mackintosh – mother, Margaret Rennie – who was also a bit of a dab hand at building things, not least the Glasgow School of Art? ‘Bound to be, bound to be,’ he says, mischievously. ‘Look, all I know is my grandfather was born in Stranraer and he was about two when his father packed up the family and moved to Australia and on to New Zealand not long after. So I’m pretty keen to get down there and find out a bit more about the family.’

He’s also pretty keen to get the guitar going. Rumour has it there’s a twelve-string in transit and along with Callum ‘Fingers’ Gibbins and Captain Wilson’s ukulele, a string trio is surely in the offing.
‘No, I’m a crash/bash/party guitarist really,’ he says. ‘Been playing since I was ten. I just play by ear; most songs you listen to on the radio you can play.’
‘So if you win the Pro14 will you play us a tune?’
‘Absolutely.’
‘And what’ll you play?’
‘Not sure; I’ll think about it.’
‘It better be good.’
He snorts.
‘I tell you, if the win the Pro14, it’ll be good all right.’

07 SEPTEMBER 2017

 

 

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