Seeing the ‘Woods’ for the trees: How Eastwood were reborn

Photo: SPA Images

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It didn’t exactly start with a bang. For sure, losing to Warringah in his first game in charge wasn’t the way John Manenti wanted to announce himself as a Shute Shield head coach. But that Saturday afternoon back in July 2010 can now be heralded as a new dawn for Eastwood rugby club.

“I wasn’t too sure if I’d made the right decision after we lost that first one,” Manenti jovially reflects now. “But thankfully, we won the next week and went from there.”

To say that is an understatement, would be an understatement in itself. A touch over three and a half years later, Manenti has now guided the Woodies to four consecutive Minor Premierships, suffering only 11 defeats from 74 games in the process, and tomorrow, he will take his side into their second Grand Final in three years against the team they beat in 2011’s decider, Sydney University. Topping it off is the fact that Eastwood will have all four grades on display at Concord Oval – as will Uni – in an historic first for the competition.

So, how did a team that nearly went to the wall in 2008, turn things around to such an extent that they are now able to justifiably challenge the Uni juggernaut?

For a club to make such a dramatic u-turn requires all on board to be pulling in the same direction; players, coaches, directors, supporters, volunteers etc. To suggest that Eastwood’s success is down to only two people therefore, is mere folly. But there can be no denying that Manenti, in tandem with his highly rated General Manager, Robert Frost, have played pivotal roles in the reversal of fortune.

They make an interesting duo. While Manenti was a former front rower of some repute, forging a respected amateur career with West Harbour and – irony of all ironies – Sydney University, Frost was a self-confessed “S**t-house footballer”, who has nevertheless had Eastwood in his blood for as long as he can remember.

“I grew up not far from the ground and my parents used to come and watch, so I’ve always been Eastwood,” he says. “I went to school with a lot of very good footballers and I would have loved to have played here. But I’m happy watching.”

He took the General Manager role towards the end of 2009, having offered his help to the board since son Mark joined as a player a few years prior. He readily admits to walking into a club seemingly on the brink of self-destruction.

“The place was in complete disarray,” he reflects. “They owed a massive amount of money, they had just turned over half the board, and there wasn’t a cent in the place whatsoever. Rugby-wise, the playing roster was inadequate. It was in a terrible state.”

Robert Frost and Gerard Landon_2013

Eastwood General Manager Robert Frost with lifelong club supporter Gerard Landon at the Woodies Legends Lunch earlier this year. ‘Mr Programmes’ used to sell Rugby News
on the high street in Eastwood when Frost was just a boy.

Things improved thanks to the financial support of a long time Eastwood supporter, and a change of strategy in the boardroom.

“We got lucky on two counts,” admits Frost. “Firstly, we had one particular supporter who stood by the club, lent us a fair bit of money, and gave us some excellent advice and assistance. We had to pay him back of course and we had to do as we were told, but we couldn’t have done it without him.

“Secondly, we got a new chairman, Rob Cusack, who is a former club captain and played over 150 games for Eastwood, and some new board members. We were blessed with the people that we got. The combination with our President Brett Papworth and other long serving Directors has worked very well, and we have a very stable and non-interventionist board. That helps enormously.”

The smart decisions made off the field around that time have benefited the club ever since. They drew a line in the sand, took a holistic overview of what they wanted to achieve and how they could go about it, and the rewards are now evident. “We understood that we needed sponsorship, and the only way to attract sponsorship was to have an attractive, winning first grade side, so we sacrificed everything else in the club in order to make that happen,” says Frost.

“Eastwood’s philosophy has always been ‘focus on the coaches rather than the players’ and that’s what we’ve done,” he continues. “We got the best colts coach we could and we got the best first grade coach we could, and we did everything we could to support them. The better we played, the more good players wanted to come to us. The more good players we got, the more sponsors wanted to come, and it just bred success.”

While Frost was busy trying to keep the club alive and prosperous off the field, a shrewd coaching change set the ball rolling on it, that hasn’t stopped since. When the highly successful Premiership winning coach from 2002/03, Chris Hickey, left before the end of the season back in 2008 to take up his new post with the Waratahs, the Woodies went on to miss out on the finals. By the start of the following season, former Manly coach Brian ‘Billy’ Melrose was in place, with Manenti his right hand man.

After reaching the Preliminary Final in their first year at the helm – the coaching duo had previously combined with the Western Sydney Rams in the short-lived ARC – they were maintaining their rate of progress the following year in 2010, when Melrose got the call from Europe and upped anchor for a professional life with Connacht in Ireland.

In retrospect, it was Melrose’s vision that set about transforming Eastwood into an exciting, attacking unit. “Billy started to turn us around on the football field,” Frost observes. “We still play lots of things that he put in place at the club.”

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Mentor: Brian ‘Billy’ Melrose and John Manenti back in 2009 – Photo: SPA Images

“Billy is an excellent coach,” Manenti concurs. “He was a very good mentor for me and I learned a lot from him, and when the opportunity came to coach with him at Eastwood, I thought that made sense given our previous success. When he left, and with it being mid-season, I kept the basis of what we’d done together and retained the philosophies on pretty much everything for the rest of that season.”

At the time of Melrose’s departure, the Woodies were already sitting pretty in second spot. But no-one could have predicted the immediate success Manenti would have in stepping up to assume greater responsibility. Both he and Frost admit to having reservations about the decision, but the proof has most certainly been in the pudding.

“Coming after guys like Chris Hickey and Billy Melrose, I was a pretty young coach and I wasn’t sure if Eastwood would want me,” says Manenti. “But they asked me if I wanted to do it, and my work and my family were happy for me to have a go at it and take it on, and the rest is history.”

“We chose John because he’d worked with Billy and clearly had the respect of the players. But he was a forward as a player, and Eastwood has always been a club that likes to run the ball,” reveals Frost. “He’d never been in charge of a club either, so it was a bit of a gamble all round. But it couldn’t have worked out better.

“I will give him every credit. He’s done an absolutely outstanding job and there’s nobody at the club that would have expected the heights that he’s achieved,” Frost continues. “We were hopeful of doing well but certainly nowhere near as well as he’s done.”

Between them, they’ve built a working partnership that allows both individuals to thrive, and the club to benefit as a result. It’s a relationship built on trust, respect and an acceptance of the realities of running a grassroots rugby team in a fragile economic environment.

“John’s got a day job, he’s worked in a commercial environment and he understands business very well,” says Frost. “He understands budgets, procedures and rules, so I’ll tell him how much money he’s got to work with and I’ll do everything I can to help him, but we don’t go a cent above that. The sideline is where his job starts and where my job stops, and we have no trouble working on that basis.”

John Manenti_Stu Woodhouse_Tim Donnelly_2013_SPA

Manenti has plenty of praise for fellow coaches Tim Donnelly (left) and Stu Woodhouse (right) – Photos: SPA Images

Manenti is equally glowing in his appraisal. “Rob does everything he can to enable the coaches and the players to just turn up and play football, and not worry about anything outside that. He keeps a barrier between me and anything that’s happening in the club at board level so I don’t get distracted, yet he gives me as much responsibility as I want in terms of the football. He’s brilliant.

“He’s managed a very small budget compared to most clubs by being a very shrewd businessman. He doesn’t waste money on things we don’t need, but never have we needed something that we’ve gone without either. He’d have few guys who could match him for combining business nous with an understanding of football.”

With the two in tandem and singing from the same hymn sheet, they started season 2011 with high hopes, and with Manenti beginning to foist his own ideals on the team. But it wasn’t easy.

“I started developing ideas and trying to have my own impact on the guys but it took some time to adjust,” he admits. “Assistant coaches have a much easier relationship with players because they’re not the ones hiring and firing so to speak. So I went from being ‘mates’ with the boys to being the main man, which was a big learning curve.”

He’s obviously a quick learner. Another Minor Premiership followed, one in which the new coach could take the credit in his own right, before the Woodies claimed the ultimate prize, the club’s first Premiership since 2003.

That 2011 team was almost unstoppable, dominating the competition with the top-point scorer Pierre Hola, top try-scorer John Grant, and the burgeoning talents of Nic White, showing exactly why he has gone onto become a Wallaby no.9.  They lost only one game all year, and put 77pts on a shell-shocked Randwick in the Preliminary Final, before edging Sydney Uni in extra-time in the most epic and enthralling Grand Final in recent memory. Manenti points to the arrival of the Tongan magician at flyhalf as being pivotal.

“Bringing Pierre Hola in, in 2011, was a big influence on that win. Maintaining the core of the team that reached the Preliminary Final the year before, we had plenty of good backs and I’d been coaching an instinctive structure where the boys could play what was in front of them. No-one does that better than Pierre.

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The arrival of Pierre Hola at the start of 2011 was a pivotal factor in Eastwood’s success – Photos: SPA Images

“With the likes of Tim Bennetts, Sione Piukala, Lachie Turner, John Grant and Benny Batger, it was just a case of which bloke was going to catch the ball. They could all run and beat people individually, and Pierre knew exactly when to put them into a hole. It was wonderful rugby. We also had a forward pack with a reasonable amount of grunt that allowed him the time and space to do his thing, and we got the job done.”

Their chances of backing up that success in 2012 were cruelled by injuries and the break-up of the most potent backline in the comp. And despite having enough through the year to finish on top of the pile once more in the regular season, their title defence ended at the hands of Norths in the second week of the finals series, after Souths had upset them at home the previous week.

“Nic White went to Canberra, the two centres went overseas, Lachie Turner was out for the season, Pierre injured himself after four weeks, and our top try scorer John Grant went to league, so we had to start again,” bemoans Manenti. “We won another Minor Premiership but realistically, we limped into the finals and went down to two teams that were better than us on the day.”

This season has thankfully seen injuries at a relative premium by comparison, and a side which took plenty away from last year’s disappointing finish, has risen to the challenge once again. Which brings us all the way up to tomorrow, and another date with destiny against Uni. They are the two best teams in the competition, the two best teams in the Club Championship, and in Hugh Perrett and Tim Davidson, they are led by the two best leaders in club rugby and – according to today’s Ken Catchpole Medal result, the two best players in the Shute Shield. It has blockbuster clash written all over it.

Naturally, Manenti and his side will be going all out for another famous victory. But whatever the result, his record with Eastwood will be undiminished. What he has achieved at TG Millner in a relatively short period of time is almost unheralded. But in a fine example of the personal qualities he brings to the table, he deflects the spotlight onto others.

“I’ve been lucky that I’ve had, without doubt, some very talented players go through this club, and I’ve had good people around me. Assistant coaches Stuey Woodhouse and Tim Donnelly provide great support, and players like Hugh Perrett, as a leader, are just brilliant to work with.

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Finest hour: John Manenti celebrates the Grand Final win
with his on field general, Hugh Perrett
Photo: SPA Images

“The lower grade coaches have done a brilliant job in grooming guys who have come through the system in various positions, and the fact that we’re in all four grade finals suggests that we’ve got guys who are ready to step up when needed.”

The culture that Manenti’s personality, character, man-management, understanding and knowledge of the game has helped to create, is already fostering the next generation of Woodies that should ensure the club’s ongoing success. It is proving to be a powerful magnet.

“We say to young blokes ‘We can’t offer you lots of things, but you’ll love playing footy here and you’ll win more than you lose’,” reasons Frost. “They come to us now because they know it’s good fun and it’s a great place. Winning another Grand Final would be confirmation that what we’re trying to do is the right approach, and that the strategy that the board put in place is paying off. But as much as anything else, I’d be pleased for John because he deserves it.”

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First published by Rugby News on September 13th, 2003

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