Tuesday 17 July 2018

Mentor Rennie aiming to quench fire in Cullen's belly

Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie. Photo: Sportsfile
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Before Leo Cullen decided to take the next journey in his professional rugby career, he decided that he needed to take another journey to the part of the world where the sport is number one.

And to meet the men who were number one.

So, in his final year as a player at Leinster, he took time out to visit Crusaders, New Zealand's professional standard-bearers, but also the Waikato Chiefs, who had emerged to succeed them.

Their head coach proffered advice and encouragement to the man who would one day also assume the top job at Leinster.

This Saturday, both men - Cullen and Glasgow Warriors' summer appointment as head coach, Dave Rennie - will come face to face at Scotstoun in Round Two of the Champions Cup.

And, instead of seeking knowledge, Cullen will be looking to take a prized scalp following his side's opening-day success against Montpellier.

"It will be a huge challenge for us," says Cullen. "We won't be lacking in motivation," says Rennie, his side's qualification route already complicated by their Round One loss to English champions Exeter.

Rennie would have liked the cut of Cullen's jib, both as a player and fledgling coach. In the course of a conversation, he mentions a refrain familiar to those back home.

"I like hard-working good buggers," is his mantra.

Hamilton was an under-achieving area when he arrived, reaching just two Super Rugby semi-finals.

In his first season, they won the title for the first time and then backed it up the following season.

Indeed, they were never out of the play-offs in the six seasons Rennie was at the helm, 2012-'17, an unprecedented run amidst the high-achieving hothouse that is New Zealand provincial rugby.

Little wonder that Cullen sought the 53-year-old's advice. "All the while, you are trying to borrow ideas," according to Cullen. This Saturday is another step in forming them.

For Rennie, it is also a stepping stone of sorts; denied, for now at least, the chance to ascend to the top gig at home - he and Joe Schmidt are likely to vie for the role in years to come - he was linked to the South African job before Rassie Erasmus was offered it.

"No, that was all rubbish," he says in typically blunt fashion. "I rang Allister Coetzee (the outgoing coach) to confirm it was a lot of rubbish. It happens in the media, someone mentions something to someone else."

Even this week, he has been named in conjunction with the Welsh job but he is fully committed to returning Glasgow to the type of swashbuckling form that led them to a Guinness PRO12 title three seasons ago under Gregor Townsend.

"I talked for a lot of years about coming over to coach over here. It's a really good fit and the timing was good. I know Gregor well and have taken a fair interest in Glasgow.

"I met a few people who impressed me and the club's aspirations are impressive. They're hard-working good buggers, the mantra we drove at the Chiefs. There's a lot to like about it and it's a good fit for me and my wife.

"The average New Zealander would probably watch bugger all of the rugby up here, they wouldn't have any idea of the strength of this competition.

"But I'm really impressed with it. In New Zealand, they reckon the Premiership is the be all and end all but we have seen how the Pro14 teams have been able to beat a lot of the English teams."

His style will remain unswerving from the template that drove the Chiefs, even if defeat last weekend was a stumbling block, their first of the campaign.

"I don't know if there is a right way to play. I like a blend between all-out attack and earning the right, a bit of brutality amidst that in an attempt to generate quick ball.

"I like our side to play, we want to obviously attack when the opportunity arises. I mean if it's on from 95 yards we're going to go from 95 yards.

"Hopefully you'll see a blend of high skill and brutality."

Like so many of the great coaches, he has a teaching background; more, he coached many different sports.

"I played a lot of them too. It's something we encourage in New Zealand not to specialise so you have multiple skills when you do specialise.

"We're not all about rugby, we have world champions in a variety of sports. So I've always tried to play a brand of footie that's benefiting from that variety."

Variety is the spice of his life.

Known to pick a mean tune on guitar, we wonder what his initiation piece might be, if he ever gets around to it.

"It's gotta be 'Seven Spanish Angels'," he smiles. An enduring classic, not unlike its interpreter.

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