It was more or less the same few questions, asked in several different ways. Can you help the Wallabies win back the Bledisloe Cup? Does Australia have the cattle? Who will your captain be? Should we pick Wallabies from overseas? Also, why are you here?
The Wallabies pin twinkled under lights. “I had a lot of time to think about it. I got an approach from Australia reasonably early on, so I did my homework,” he said. “Raelene [Castle] flew to Jersey, we had a sit down for a few hours. She really impressed me. Smart and tough, really keen for change, and driven. The fact I know [director of rugby Scott Johnson], I felt the leadership here was really strong, I felt they’d have my back. That was a big part of it.
“I understand the rugby landscape here, there is a lot of talent here and I felt I can make a difference. The key was to get quality people around me and start to build a base. That challenge really excited me.”
Rennie’s appointment late last year was widely perceived as a win for Australia and New Zealand’s loss. He is universally respected. In many circles, he is loved.
His ability to unite a diverse Chiefs playing group and steer them to glory, twice, while integrating a star as big as Sonny Bill Williams, bodes well for the Wallabies. Australia’s cultural diversity is a strength and a challenge, particularly for its captain.
Rennie’s under-20s World Championship three-peat with the Junior All Blacks in 2008, 2009 and 2010 shows developing young talent is a strength, which is another good sign given Australia’s post-World Cup talent drain left a large experience gap in the playing ranks.
He has promised fitter, tactically pragmatic Wallabies who will “spill blood for each other” on the field and earn respect off it.
But there are two big question marks that linger. This is the 56-year-old’s first senior international role, which is a big step up in a few different ways. It is more scrutiny and expectation with less control over the quality and fitness of the playing group.
In 2015, Rennie’s predecessor Michael Cheika coached the Waratahs in Super Rugby then took a NSW-heavy squad to the World Cup, making the final (albeit with a couple of strokes of luck working in their favour). In the following years, Cheika found that without genuine high performance integration across the four Super Rugby sides the role became more selector than coach. His capacity to influence and control diminished and the results deteriorated.
Australia’s first Test opponents this year, Ireland, have perfected the centralised model. As a senior administrator remarked to the Herald recently, they out-New Zealanded New Zealand. The national union controls player movement, concentrating much of the top talent in Leinster while, for many years, treating Connacht as a development province. As Rennie pointed out on Thursday: “they [Ireland] have a big chunk of Leinster playing for them and they [Leinster] are just murdering everyone up here at the moment. They’ll have a really good side and they’ll be a really good gauge for us”.
In other words, Rennie and the Wallabies will only do as well as the Australian system allows them to. They could do worse, but they won’t be able to do better.
The other question mark is his late arrival. Choosing to honour his contract with Pro14 side Glasgow, he could conceivably pitch up for full time duty with 10 days to spare before Ireland arrive for Test matches in Brisbane and Sydney.
“It’s not perfect”, Rennie admitted this week. “I made a commitment to Glasgow I didn’t want to walk away from that.
“There was a number of players who I told I was staying for the full year and signed because of that. In the end, we talked about the quality of the people we were bringing in with [attack coach Scott Wisemantel] and [defence coach] Matt Taylor, so that connection is going to be important. We’ll do a lot of planning from afar. It’s doable, I’ve done it before, I think the key is having good people involved and that’s what we’ve got.”
The flip side is that Australia will be coached by a man who stands by his commitments.
There was a welcome absence of ideology in his responses and not a single mention of the “Australian way”. He talked about balance, playing heads-up rugby, but also about kicking to apply pressure and bend defences.
Despite the complexity of his dual-role situation, he was across the details that matter. He was asked for the next line in a verse of the Australian anthem during one of the interviews on Thursday and stumbled, promising to “sing it with gusto” at the first Test at Suncorp Stadium.
But in response to a question about Australia’s player pipeline, Rennie knew there were five youngsters who would back up for a second spell in the Junior Wallabies squad this year, compared to the 12 who backed up the year before. He knows what he has to work with this year and in 2023.
Rennie is not the Messiah. There will be plenty of challenges for the second foreigner to coach the Wallabies. He will rely heavily on director of rugby Scott Johnson to help earn the trust and commitment of the Super Rugby provinces. But his first public outing as Wallabies coach left the impression he is a man of substance and integrity, with a track record of success, which is an encouraging starting point.
Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.