Revealed: How the Wallabies' South African scrum coach won over Dave Rennie

· Tri Nations
by Christy Doran

The man tasked with turning the Wallabies’ scrum into the biggest weapon in world rugby has, at last, arrived in Australia.

Two months after being appointed as the Wallabies’ scrum coach, Petrus du Plessis finally met his pupils on Saturday after being released from quarantine on the morning of Bledisloe III.

A handshake later and du Plessis’ international coaching career was up and running.

Up until then, the former Saracens prop and Glasgow prop, who helped mentor the likes of England front-row duo Mako Vunipola and Jamie George, had been forced to coach from behind the computer. How very 2020.

“Quarantined for two weeks and then I got released on the morning of the game,” du Plessis told reporters.

“It was a big day at the office. My first day. But I've been obviously working a lot with the front rowers remotely.

“I'm probably the first international coach to coach via Zoom but I've enjoyed that and the boys have taken that really well. When I got here it was a quick handshake and off we went, get ready for the game.”

Du Plessis might not have played international rugby, but anyone who knows anything about the English Premiership knows that the South African prop, who is a qualified physiotherapist, was one of the outstanding front-rowers of the past decade.

After hanging up the boots last season, du Plessis’s transition into coaching was seamless.

In his final season at Glasgow, he was a player-coach under Wallabies coach Dave Rennie.

“I played eight years at Saracens, two at London Irish and two at Glasgow Warriors with Dave Rennie,” du Plessis said.

“In that time, I've learned the dark arts the hard way. And the best possible way. I've worked with some unbelievable players and mentored and coached quite a few unbelievable players. Guys you'd see in the England and South Africa set-up.

“I obviously then did a lot with Scotland and Glasgow Warriors. The coaching craft was always there, the mentoring side and the playing side finished in January.”

While du Plessis’ appointment with the Wallabies was questioned by some quarters in Australian rugby, his ability to transform the Warriors’ scrum won over Rennie.

“Look, I think when I first went to Glasgow Warriors, no disrespect to anyone in particular but the scrum wasn't a massive set piece feature for the team and wasn't very highly ranked in Europe,” du Plessis said.

“I came in and made a huge difference. We finished in the top five in Europe last year scrum wise.

“My physio background plays a massive role. Physiotherapy is basically movement analysis. That helps me massively. I'm an expert in neck strengthening. That helps massively in the scrum. Core strengthening. If you put all that together, with the fact I've only recently played so I know all the scrum rules inside out. I've stuck my head in those dark places. If you put all that together, that's where the conversation led with Dave. He said to me in his own words, I relate well to all ages and props and front rows. He liked that and he liked the way I present and get the message across.

“We had an honest discussion and I said to him ‘look, if the chance occurred, I would follow you to Australia’. That's what happened.”

The Wallabies’ scrum has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and was helped by the pact mentality that Argentinian coach Mario Ledesma instilled at the Wallabies.

Yet, despite its improvement, there is still an element of inconsistency about the Wallabies’ scrum.

Du Plessis, however, wants to turn it into a weapon.

“The Wallabies scrum has always been there or thereabouts,” he said.

“They didn't have a bad World Cup campaign. But I suppose, some people might say the scrum was just a restart of set piece. The thing we want to change is, we want to make the scrum a weapon, so we can decide whether we attack or not and we can manipulate the opposition. That's the main thing, for me.

“The talent we've got at the minute is good enough to possibly have one of the best scrums in the world, I believe. Looking at what talent we have, I'm pretty sure we've made good strides. The first game - you're always going to have a bit of ref interpretation in regards to free kicks. The second Bledisloe we came away with the rub of the green and then we had 100 per cent ball in the last two games.”

Unsurprisingly, du Plessis said that getting the best out of Taniela Tupou would be critical to that scrum success and already the South African has attempted to develop the giant tight-head’s technique.

“He's a phenomenal athlete,” said du Plessis of Tupou.

“Probably one of the strongest props I've ever come across. They don't make props small or petite anymore. They come in bigger packages now.

“His future is extremely bright. He's learning really, really well. We've fault corrected a few things from a scrum point of view. To have Taniela be less vulnerable to ref interpretation (is important) and he's shown real good courage to change that. From here onwards, we will see a different picture from him and a nice bit of dominance. He's a phenomenal athlete and Australia is really lucky to have him.”

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