Wallabies trainer Dave Rennie has a chance to end the identity...

Wallabies trainer Dave Rennie has a chance to end the identity...
Wallabies trainer Dave Rennie has a chance to end the identity...
It was a strange moment. A New Zealander explains “our” DNA through indigenous symbols worn by a team without indigenous players. (Of 933 wallabies, 14 were indigenous men, three of whom were from a family.) In Rennie’s group, a majority like him are Pacific islanders. In the background there was a dispute about whether the team should show solidarity with an international civil rights movement. Disregard the debate about whether or not Australian rugby has a racial problem. Certainly the wallabies have an identity problem.

When Rennie first sat down with his team, as a coach who built his reputation on forging “culture,” the standard approach was to ask them to finish, “The wallabies are …?” This weekend you can start setting the stage for yourself in answering the question many of us have lost sight of. What do today’s wallabies stand for?

Dave Rennie’s Wallabies team can show what they stand for at the Bledisloe Cup showdown on Saturday at the ANZ Stadium.Recognition:Getty

We knew it. The identity in sports teams does not result from corporate branding or virtue mark exercises, but from the personality of the players and their playing style. In Australia’s times of greatness, the wallabies were fortunate enough to draw their distinctive identity from both individual and team styles. In the 1980s to early 1990s, her signature was the ball-in-hand attack game, promoted by Bob Dwyer and performed by the brothers Ella, David Campese and the rest of the rugby community. Their opponents served old-fashioned Stodge, and Australia (along with France) were the excitement machines of the code.

The teams led by John Eales and George Gregan, while benefiting from Stephen Larkham’s attacking genius, were more distinguished by their heroic defense. These wallabies often won big games by defending their line phase after phase in the final stages. Their determined duels earned them a world championship in 1999 and they defended their way to the 2003 final. How many times do we remember shouting that these Eales-Gregan teams are attacking, attacking, attacking! The symbolic moment of that era is still Gregan’s attack on Jeff Wilson in 1994.

In the years since her winning record dropped, a recognizable Wallabies signature also fell. What was the australian style? This got as confusing as why they stopped winning. Her key personalities were nice people and hard workers who took a loss. What does Michael Hooper remember: a tough nugget that brings itself to a standstill before delivering a dignified speech in defeat?
Obviously, it is easier for rugby teams to figure out an identity when they win, and you can consider them one of the best in the world. England’s playful identity is hyperaggression, led by Kyle Sinckler, a gifted central tent pole in Maro Itoje, and a quick, dexterous outer back.

Multicultural they look like England today. World champions South Africa can use two of the best strikers in rugby, and their brutal physicality preserves a deep national rugby tradition that goes beyond color. New Zealand is an entertainer, charismatic and super (sometimes over) self-confident, counterattacking at lightning speed, the one test team that can carry out four attempts in 10 minutes. If you watch New Zealand play against Australia, you know what the All Blacks stand for, and too often the wallabies have been Washington Generals for their Harlem Globetrotters – not so much because Australia lost, but because Australia was boring.

“It’s been a long time since viewers can safely (and without swear words) finish a sentence that begins with” The Wallabies are … “.

If you start, win or lose in Sydney, the new generation of wallabies have a unique opportunity to inscribe their own signature. Michael Cheika tried an Australian style ball-in-hand style, but it didn’t work out for complex reasons. They start again under Rennie.

The years of overinvestment in Israel Folau and the trauma of his departure are still winding down. The Folau break was a conflict between two versions of identity: one for corporate loyalty and sponsorship, the other for a specific conception of religion. Neither of these competing identities had anything to do with the way the Wallabies might play rugby, and both of them turned off the majority of the crowd. The reputation of the wallabies is still recovering.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in the two upcoming Bledisloe Cup games. The feverish emotional roller coaster ride from Wellington and Auckland shows the desperation of the fans. The provincial rugby financial collapse means a top-down strategy is Rugby Australia’s last hope. You need the wallabies to be good and for good things to flow out of them, or they are cooked.

Aside from the question of winning – that would be handy! – The community longs for a wallabies style to identify and personalities that leave an indelible mark. This imprint could come from the speed and agility of Jordan Petaia, Marika Koroibete, and Filipo Daugunu on the edges; perhaps from Noah Lolesio’s highly anticipated debut as five-eighths. Maybe the new signature player is Harry Wilson as the reincarnation of Mark Loane. Perhaps it is the power of the people’s favorite woman, Taniela Tupou.

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“Culture”, the most commonly used word in sports, is said to be Rennie’s strength. He started out by getting players to appreciate their teammates’ personal stories. Your job is to translate this into an expression of style in the field. The bigger task will be to get it out to the public so that when they focus on a Wallabies match, they see “we”, “us” and “our”. The wallabies have been “them” for too long. If this succeeds, and no one will see or hear the superficial differences, only the gold of the jersey.

Do you want to make a statement? It’s been a long time since viewers can safely (and without swear words) finish the sentence that begins with “The Wallabies are…”.

The next two weeks are the first opportunity for this young team to add these words.

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Malcolm Knox is a journalist, writer, and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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