Dave Rennie: The commander in Chiefs

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 10:25 21/07/2013

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Coaching is about so much more than a leather ball.

Above all else, it is about people - relating to individuals regardless of age, ethnicity or ability, and showing empathy for emotions.

Not everyone gets it. Dave Rennie, the great redeemer, does.

"He's a people's coach," says Chiefs assistant Wayne Smith.

The key to a successful rugby team, like any work situation, is a harmonious environment.

Coaches who don't understand that, and therefore can't create an inclusive culture, won't succeed. Look no further than John Mitchell, the aggressive nomad whose reputation is tainted from constant fallouts with his players. Consider why Mark Hammett jettisoned Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore from the Hurricanes. Egos must be kept in check; discipline must be adhered to. Take a close look at the Highlanders this year. Similar unhappiness emerged there, too. Quality players such as Colin Slade, Hosea Gear and Adam Thomson don't leave when all is well.

In some ways Rennie is fortunate. In others he made his own luck and is now reaping the rewards. His career began at Upper Hutt's Fergusson Intermediate. Being a teacher, he already appreciated the importance of genuine rapport.

"It's everything to be honest," Rennie told Fairfax of understanding his players. "It's all about relationships and managing people. The thing about our job is you're not always giving good news. You've got to have empathy. It's a massive part of the game."

Ironically, Rennie was the Chiefs' third choice to take over from Ian Foster last year.

Before the 2011 World Cup Chiefs boss Gary Dawson approached Wayne Smith and then chased British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, before turning to Rennie.

"I had a good think about it but it was going to mean a big loss of focus during the World Cup," Smith revealed. "I would have been juggling too many balls so I turned it down. I recommended Rens to them. I thought he'd be the man. Initially they took another tack, going for Warren Gatland. But they made a really good decision in the end."

The franchise must now believe in fate. Rennie led the Chiefs to their maiden title in his first season in charge - and took them to this year's final four - proof he was the right man for the job.

A Rarotongan Wellingtonian who has secret skills on the guitar, Rennie appreciates the need to understand his men, both on and off the pitch. Players can't produce their best when their private lives aren't in sync, whether it's alcohol, court cases or relationship break-ups.

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He knows where to draw the line, but Rennie is comfortable socialising with his players. On tour he's known to bust out a classic garage-style sing-a-long you would expect from a rural town jukebox pub. You know, the "kiss and say goodbye" type tune.

"I don't go out drinking with the boys but you need to get to know your players well," Rennie said. "I make a real effort to get to know the girlfriends and the wives. For the guys to be happy in a work environment things need to be good at home.

"I'm hopefully close enough to the guys that they could let me know about things that are affecting their footy, but still strong enough to make the hard calls. That happens every week."

These sorts of interactions allow Rennie to recognise, better than most, what buttons to push.

"He's a typical Raro guy; easy to get along with," Chiefs co-captain Liam Messam says. "When the players respect the coach you'll do anything for them. We clicked straight away. I really enjoy the way he coaches and the way he is off the field as well."

Take Asaeli Tikoirotuma. Four years ago Rennie plucked the Fijian wing from second-division club Wanganui. Now he's a Super Rugby regular. Matt Vant Leven is another. The unassuming No 8 was summoned from Waikato club rugby and has been a standout this year. Few coaches possess this ability to get the best out of players others would overlook.

To be a successful rugby coach, you don't need to know everything. Analytical skills are beneficial, but drawing from experience is fundamental. In this regard Rennie is a rich man. He has also been patient, picking his opportunities to progress through the ranks.

Thirteen years ago he was the last coach win a title with any Wellington-based professional rugby team. After being ousted from the capital he then transformed Manawatu to recapture the pride and passion of the province on a nickel and dime budget, while securing three consecutive World Cup crowns with the New Zealand under-20s.

"In Palmy there were a lot of passionate rugby people who were desperate for big footy to come back to town," he recalled. "We got a lot of support. We didn't have a lot of money but we put a lot of emphasis on developing locals. It's pretty special to see guys like Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith play for the All Blacks."

Many of the relationships Rennie formed in his unrivalled reign with the under-20s underpinned his breakthrough championship with the Chiefs. Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Robbie Robinson, Ben Tameifuna and, next year, Tom Marshall, are just some of the players to follow their mentor. That alone speaks volumes.

"Our knowledge of players across the whole country throughout the coaching group was important," he said. "We had a lot of relationships with different people. We knew a lot about their character."

Other than his people skills, Rennie's greatest asset at the Chiefs was the nous to surround himself with challenging minds. Forwards guru Tom Coventry, Wayne Smith and skills man Andrew Strawbridge - described as the "irritant in the oyster" - often buck heads before finding solutions. Not having a yes-man coaching team takes confidence. Smith's influence is frequently emphasised, but the buck stops with the head coach.

"Fair enough too," Rennie said. "Ultimately we have to take responsibility. If we win a championship then we deflect all the praise to the players."

As always, he comes back to the players. That is Rennie's first and last concern; the reason he has got to where he is; the reason he will, one day, take the next step to the All Blacks.

- Waikato

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