Dave Rennie, a good Kiwi bugger
The man, his Chiefs and his All Blacks dreamMARK REASON
Dave Rennie walks over in an old Hurley T-shirt taut with sweat and sawdust, a Jack Dee smile turning down the corners of his mouth. He's been cutting up trees out the back of the section. The Chiefs coach is what Kiwis call a good bugger. And on this Sunday evening, with the sun reaching across the tips of the Manawatu treeline, even Rennie's clothes come drenched in salt of the earth.
He should have been coach of the year in 2012. The panel gave the award to Steve Hansen, but it was hard to know why. Hansen took over the world champions, the best rugby team on the planet by a furlong, and kept on winning. Rennie took charge of a team of "rock stars" and roadies, and turned them from an inconsistent rabble into a winning part of the community.
But Rennie doesn't want this interview to be about him, he wants it to be about the Chiefs, about the people there, about rugby, about a team of people that started with selection.
"That was a massive part," says Rennie. "The Chiefs had always had quite a few rock stars, but lacked a few workers. We trawled through a lot of data."
Rennie brought in kids of "high character" from the New Zealand under-20s, players who had already "fronted" on the world stage. Others, like Asaeli Tikoirotuma, followed their coach from Manawatu. He appointed Craig Clarke and Liam Messam, players who had been with the Chiefs for a while, co-captains. Clarke, after leading the team to back-to-back titles, has now left for Japan and will be a hard man to replace. "We are still working through that," says Rennie, staring out the window. Even when he's not looking you in the eye, Rennie draws in your trust. "Craig's very calm, he manages people well, especially refs. Liam's passionate, inspirational, follow me. They learned a lot from each other."
So with Clarke now gone, will they appoint a new co-captain, or just go with Messam?
"We haven't decided yet."
But Rennie is irritated people are still criticising Messam's performance with the All Blacks. "It does annoy me. I think he's been fantastic. The same thing with Aaron. There's been a lot of talk about Beauden Barrett. He's a good player when the game's broken up, but one guy has taken a team to two championships, the other guy's team is around 11th. Aaron's way better defensively and a lot more combative.
"The gap between Dan Carter and Aaron has closed to the state where if DC is not playing, you don't tend to notice a great deal of difference."
Rennie reacts like these guys are family, but in a way they are. Steph, his wife of 25 years, is outside on the mower. You have to be loyal to accompany your man from Wellington to Palmerston North to Hamilton. And there are three grown-up boys about the place. But Rennie, a former schoolteacher, like Mr Chips has another 30 or so 'sons' at his place of work.
"Teaching, coaching, it's the same thing," he says, "The kids are just a bit bigger."
I wonder what assistant coach Wayne Smith thinks of Rennie. Smith texts back from Guangzhou: "Special. Imagine him as AB coach some time down the line. Genial, values people and fairness.You have to keep working at relationships and the Chiefs are always working. Their first priority was to earn the trust of the locals.
Rennie says, "We felt if we could empty the tank week after week, people would respect that and get behind you. And you will win more games than you lose."
They reached into the community. The team hitchhiked from Hamilton to Ohope. They coached in every little town across the region. Rennie and Wayne Smith took on speaking engagements and put the money back into the club for player development. The squad knocked down walls and sanded and painted the training base at Ruakura.
"It gave the boys some skin in the game. And if we want people to take an interest in us, then we have to take an interest in them."
Now the Chiefs are planning to play a world club championship in France in early February. It gives them an early pre-season focus. The NZRU last week tentatively approved the trip.
Rennie says, "The chance to play in a world club final doesn't come around very often. It's a hell of a challenge and we plan to take the whole squad.
"It's highly motivating. Toulon are paying for everything. The money is substantial, although it's not the main reason for going."
But it's a very good one. The fee is not above a million, but it is well into six figures. And then there is the television income to negotiate.
"We're all over that sort of stuff, but I am not sure I can share too much. We are looking at every avenue to promote our brand internationally."
This is about improving a region, a community. Much of the money raised by the Toulon trip would go into a proper sandslip training field, a small indoor training facility, an innovation fund to pay for fitness coach Phil Healey's current trip to Europe where he has been talking to clubs about the latest innovations in GPS technology.
The Toulon trip is about building a better home for the family. And the Chiefs are a huge extended family.
"We are unique with our Maoritanga. We did a lot of research into who we are and tied it into Tainui. For us it's in everything. It's in our defence terminology.
"We play these games called pa wars. The boys represent four different pas spread across the region - Taupo, Counties, Hamilton, Bay of Plenty. We play for a big wooden shield every week.
"Craig Clarke would touch the Whatanoa at the stadium to draw strength from those that went before. We had a haka written for us. All those things are really powerful."
Rennie plans to help build the Chiefs a better home and to bring up all those kids for another two years. Then he fancies giving Steph a well-earned trip, maybe to Italy. But what if the All Blacks approach him after the World Cup? The All Blacks are a great side, but year by year they seem more distant from the community. How about giving them back to the people?
"I'd love to go down the line, but it's a tough job to get, isn't it? The current group are going bloody well. If they continue that and win the World Cup, why would you change that? If there's a chance to be involved with the All Blacks, that would be good, but it's not on the immediate horizon."
We stroll outside. Steph is parking up the mower. On the immediate horizon is a huge chook shed that Rennie has just finished building with one of his boys. The Chiefs coach looks at it with pride. He did it for half the price of a prefab. And the chooks are real happy.
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