Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has picked a side to face Wales with one eye on the Rugby World Cup, but whether Rennie will survive that long now feels like a question that could go either way.
Ben Donaldson’s start at No.10, for example, is a clear test to see if he is a legitimate option as a World Cup squad member who can cover five-eighth and fullback.
Langi Gleeson’s selection at No.8 can be seen in a similar light.
The concern this weekend is one of timing. Even though the Test is outside the World Rugby window, Wales have managed to put together a side that is arguably their strongest of the November series.
Coach Wayne Pivac — under even more pressure than Rennie — has loaded up on experience, bringing back Leigh Halfpenny, Taulupe Faletau and Alun Wyn Jones, none of whom started in the shock loss to Georgia last weekend.
Rennie will hope this is not an omen, but the last time a New Zealand coach was about to get the boot from the Wallabies, Halfpenny, Faletau and Jones were also in the opposition.
Leigh Halfpenny scores for the British and Irish Lions during a tour match against the Waratahs almost a decade ago.Credit:Dallas Kilponen
That was for the British and Irish Lions in Sydney in 2013, and history does find a way of repeating itself in Australian rugby.
This column firmly believes he should stay, but in the real world a coach is clearly in peril when his chief executive goes public about a post-tour review in the days leading up to a critical Test. Andy Marinos’ remarks this week about the Wallabies’ “alarming” injury woes effectively pre-empted the outcome of that review, and is a sign of the tension between the coaching group and the executive.
With the rugby public also restive after the loss to Italy, Rennie is facing a tide that can be hard to turn.
A win against Wales, therefore, is essential but it is hard to remember a Wallabies side so callow being asked to perform such a difficult task.
Does Dave Rennie have the cattle for a match the Wallabies must win, for his sake as much as anyone’s?Credit:Getty
As a result, Rennie has been forced into compromise mode with some selections. For example, Tom Wright has been picked at No.15 to provide “voice” for wingers Mark Nawaqanitawase and Jordan Petaia. That does not provide much reassurance against a Wales team that is mature at No.9-No.10 and No.15.
As for the complicated question of the Wallabies injury list, it is best to defer to someone with experience at the coalface.
Highlanders hooker Rhys Marshall has played under Rennie, Rassie Erasmus and Stephen Larkham (Rennie at the Chiefs and the last two at Munster). He offered the Herald an eloquent and nuanced view of the situation — and their potential connection to culture.
“Rens’ didn’t really know the area of fitness [at the Chiefs] so he went away and we got a couple of guys … one was from rowing and the other brought a different element,” Marshall said.
“When you get guys performing for a bigger cause than themselves, they play really well. But they also injure themselves a lot.”
“They work on a model stretched out throughout the year, so often your biggest training weeks are often your best game weeks, and you have to pick those. So he took on a couple of guys who modelled it throughout the year, and what the loads were going to look like throughout the season.
“His [strength] is his ability is to develop culture and understand people, which a lot of other coaches don’t bother with — guys like Rassie and Steve Larkham aren’t culture-driven coaches.
“Culture is Rens’ bread and butter, so when you get guys performing for a bigger cause than themselves, they play really well. But they also injure themselves a lot.
“We found out in 2014 [at the Chiefs] … guys would injure themselves and run themselves into the ground for him. We were doing hamstrings and all the rest of it.
“It’s not that the modelling was wrong, but the boys knew after 2012 and 2013 [the Chiefs’ Super Rugby title wins], they knew what they could get if they really worked for it. But it’s a very fine balance.
“I’m not sure what he’s doing in the conditioning space but I’d say what he is doing is that team culture to make guys train harder and play harder. Whether that’s [having] an impact on injury … it’s a balancing act.“
Rennie might resist it, but win, lose or draw could his future as Wallabies coach be determined by a willingness to take on a strong conditioner who can step in and pull on the reins when the players want to run through brick walls?
Watch all the action from the Wallabies Spring Tour with every match streaming ad-free, live and on demand on Stan Sport. Continues this weekend with Wales v Wallabies (Sunday 1.55am AEDT) and England v South Africa (Sunday 4.20am AEDT).
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