Rennie hopes "Communication and connection" will help keep talent like Suaalii in rugby

Super Rugby - AU
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Incoming Wallabies coach Dave Rennie says "communication and connection" is the key to keeping young talent in rugby down the track.

Rennie all but conceded rugby had lost the race for teenage prodigy Joseph Suaalii, who has reportedly signed with NRL's Souths for the next three years.

Suaalii is still just 16 and in year 11 at The King's School, Parramatta, but he has been heavily chased by both league and rugby throughout his high schooling.

"I met him [Suaalii] when I was here in January, impressive athlete and a very mature kid for 16," he said on Monday.

"As you get with guys like Joseph, they command a lot of attention and clearly Souths are very interested in him and have thrown some serious money in front him.

"So he's just an example of the type of kids that we want to keep in our game, but it's a competitive market and it's not easy."

With schools and U20s success in recent years and the establishment of a Fighting Fund for emerging talent, rugby has retained a host of impressive youngsters in recent years including Brumbies rake Billy Pollard and Waratahs prop Angus Bell.

Though he admitted there might be times when the cash that AFL and NRL can throw at youngsters would put rugby out of contention, Rennie said maintaining strong bonds with talented prospects would be critical.

"We're going to miss out on some of these kids coming out of school but I think it's important that we keep in contact with them and keep that relationship going, so that when they're making the next decision around a contract our game is still an option for them," he said.

"There's genuine challenges in Australia for the good athletes coming out of school.

"If you look in New Zealand, generally the best kids play rugby; league's got a bit of a presence through the Warriors and you've got the odd agent trying to steal kids out of school from a league perspective in Aussie; but most of the best athletes play rugby.

"Whereas - what is it - 16 league clubs and 18 AFL clubs [in Australia]? They're big sports and there's a lot of competition for the athletes.

"So I think that it's a lot of things that we need to do well; we need to identify kids early [and] create relationships with those kids so that when they have got to make decisions, maybe we've already got a foot in the door.

"Money comes into it obviously and some of the money that the league clubs and AFL clubs can throw at them might put them out of reach. I just think connection and communication is a massive part of it."

Off the field, Rennie is confident of the future of Australian rugby despite months of turbulence that included the departure of CEO Raelene Castle and job losses for more than a third of the organisation's staff.

Rennie signed his deal well before the coronavirus pandemic and its ramifications hit but said he was confident the game's financial issues were navigable.

"There's been a lot made of Raelene's departure and no doubt she was a big part of the reason I signed with the Wallabies, her and Johnno (Scott Johnson), there was support for me around strong leadership," he said.

"Rob's (Clarke) come in to steady the ship for a few months until someone else is appointed and he's been great, doing a really good job and Hamish's appointment from a chair point of view, a massive amount of experience and so on.

"I think we've got good people in place to financially right the ship."

Rennie is one of many Australian rugby staff who will take a financial hit in the months to come, volunteering to take a 30 per cent pay cut until the end of September, in line with the organisation's executive.

"Everyone else has taken a hair cut, I can't come in and be on full whack," he said.

"There's a few things there - my assumption was that it was always going to happen, I'd spoken to Johnno, spoken to Raelene but technically since I wasn't starting until July 1, I wasn't part of that process.

"Rob's thinking was they've all been through this process, up until then I'd been doing a bit of work but getting 100 per cent of nothing.

"Rob and I hadn't had a chance to talk and there was an assumption on my part it was going to happen anyway, so that was quickly rectified."

Rennie reiterated a need for the Australian rugby community to come together after what has been an incredibly turbulent time for the sport.

"Then, I've mentioned to a couple of people but often through media there's lots of stories that probably don't paint a great picture about Australian rugby but there's lots of good things happening and there's lots of good people involved in the game who are passionate about the future.

"I just think we've all got to pull in the same direction.

"My assumption is that lots of comments are made in the media which seem negative but hopefully it's because those people care.

"So, I just think more conversations face to face, less individuals leaking stuff to the media. I just think if we work harder together, pull in the same direction, it'll improve the brand and continue to development the game.

"It's the people, we've got a lot of good people involved so that gives me confidence that we've got a strong future."

Rennie is currently in isolation in New Zealand and is set to visit his family in Palmerston North once his quarantine period finishes on Tuesday before making his way to Australia in mid-July.