Coach Dave Rennie was nearly 20 minutes into the unveiling of his first squad of 2021 when he dropped the money phrase about the Wallabies needing to find their “dark side.”
You could see collective eyebrows rising with relish across the country from Stan Sport studio pundit Drew Mitchell, rugby journos and fans longing for a string of Test wins.
Either Rennie is a Star Wars’ fan, Darth Sidious in disguise or we were hearing a call for more calculated mongrel in the Wallabies’ play.
“We want to play an attractive brand of rugby but we’ve also got to show a dark side. We’ve got to make some shifts from Super Rugby,” Rennie told viewers when the 38-man squad was unveiled on the streaming service, Stan Sport.
If by “shifts”, he means tackling opposition players so they don’t score tries at the breakneck pace of nearly six per game, we are all for it.
The carnage of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman included plenty of positive lessons for Bledisloe Cup preparation but conceding 146 tries in 25 games through a 2-23 ledger was abysmal.
Rennie later elaborated: “We have a lot to do around defence. All sides were leaking an enormous amount (of tries).”
Defence coach Matt Taylor will be the man for that job and getting players on their feet quicker to fill the defensive line and make better quality tackles.
Queensland coach Brad Thorn made an example of his top flanker Fraser McReight by dropping him after he missed five tackles in a game.
Rennie will be as ruthless when he hands out the first Wallabies’ jerseys of the year for the exciting eToro Series against the French in Sydney (June 7), Melbourne (June 13) and Brisbane (June 17).
So what does showing a “dark side” mean?
“It’s just a bit of ruthlessness which we talked a lot about last year. We have a lot of good young men and we want them to become different creatures when they cross the chalk onto the field...aggressive, dominant,” Rennie said.
It’s the right mood to establish from the outset although you fancy NSW Waratahs enforcer-flanker Lachie Swinton would accidentally cut off his own hand if ever given a light saber.
Whether Swinton is in contention for the first Test depends if his latest red card generates a suspension or not.
It’s a big squad for a big mission...three Tests in 11 days against the most dangerous team in Europe.
Rennie did a rare thing with the naming of this squad. He said he picked on form and he did.
There were no Waratahs’ players, beyond the six picked, given a free ride into the squad after conceding a staggering 40 tries in five games against the Kiwis.
Rennie's rewarded the unfashionable in high-energy Melbourne Rebels lock-flanker Rob Leota.
Rennie’s rewarded the long-in-the-tooth in 34-year-old lock Sitaleki Timani.
Rennie’s rewarded the bolter in versatile Rebels back Andrew Kellaway because he has real gas, can kick and tackle.
Rennie's rewarded the hard-working, non-stop backrower Michael Wells at 28.
Rennie's rewarded Brumbies hooker Lachlan Lonergan for his toughness, skills, presence and excellent lineout throwing while accepting more work on scrummaging is needed.
Rennie’s rewarded Wallaby stalwart Scott Sio because he came back into form with stronger scrummaging over the final weeks of the Trans-Tasman games. “He fronted,” Rennie said.
Yes. Rennie's picked on form. Well done for that rarity.
He also made the hard phone call to tell Rebels lock Trevor Hosea that his best runs and thumping tackles are excellent but he has to do that stuff far more often to be a Wallaby.
Rennie thought a lot of Michael Hooper before taking the job of Wallabies coach. He now thinks even more highly of him which is why his 105-Test flanker has been named captain.
“I have a lot of time for Hoops. He’s incredibly passionate and a role model at full noise every minute of every training as well as in games,” Rennie said.
“He’s worked really hard to grow his leadership. He was an obvious choice.”
Unfortunately, there’ll be a change as soon as the Wallabies get together in camp on the Gold Coast this week.
Line-busting Waratahs centre Izaia Perese is no good with that shoulder injury of his.
Rennie is not getting cute with this French series and risking a loss by playing a blended “B” line-up for the midweek Test in Melbourne.
“No. Honestly, guys can back-up and play big minutes in each Test if needed. The props may be a little different,” Rennie said.
Rennie was up front about what Super Rugby Trans-Tasman showed in terms of relative depth between Australian and Kiwi rugby.
“I think if our C team played the All Blacks’ C team it would be a sizeable margin,” Rennie said.
Rennie only has to find 23 players up for the job in any Test. There are exciting possibilities to this squad with extra skills, some sharp set plays and defensive agro to add.
You have to sense this series against the French is going to be a beauty.
Welcome to the dark side.