Rams rebranded: Q&A with John Manenti

The fourth edition of the National Rugby Championship (NRC) kicks off this weekend, with nine teams now vying for the title after the welcome addition of the Fijian Drua side. Reigning champions Perth Spirit will be keen to defend their title, and the honour of Western Australian rugby, following the controversial but seemingly inevitable demise of the Western Force, while Brisbane City – with Quade Cooper et al – will be vying to regain the trophy they monopolised in 2014 and 2015.

Melbourne Rising have a 62% winning record and three semi-final appearances from their three years of competition but no silverware, and Canberra Vikings are another side that have been or thereabouts and have no chocolates to show for their efforts. But looking at things from a purely New South Wales perspective, and considering that the state provides a third of the competing teams (there were four in the first two years with the short-lived Sydney Stars), the return has been somewhat paltry.

The NSW Country Eagles have fared well, with now Shute Shield Premiership winning coach Darren Coleman leading them to 17 victories from their 26 games, including a semi-final in 2014, and a Minor Premiership and runners-up spot last year. The Sydney Rays emerged from two years of under-achievement with a superb run to the semis in 2016 under the impressive Simon Cron, only to be ripped apart by injuries at the business end. Which only leaves the Rams.

With just six wins from their 23 matches of competition thus far, they have been the also-Rams by comparison, and despite showing signs of life under John Muggleton and Jeremy Paul last time out, they never really looked like a squad that was capable of mounting a serious title challenge. Cue Eastwood rugby club.

The most successful side in the Shute Shield over recent years with three Premierships from four grand final appearances between 2011-2015, the Woodies were famously reticent to throw their weight behind the inaugural Rams project because of serious concerns around the proposed financial model.

But with the impending sale of their historic home ground, TG Millner Field, and plans to move to a new purpose-built facility that will cement the long-term future of the club within an area of greater significance to the current player/supporter base, the chance to complement that vision with ownership of the newly-available Rams licence was one they were now in a position to commit to, and hopefully, make a success of.

The announcement has been met by some degree of suspicion and a lukewarm response in some quarters, and the unveiling of the new ‘Greater’ Sydney Rams squad this week, reverting back to their 2015 moniker, has also been questioned due to the absence of any playing contribution from either Parramatta or Penrith, and the fact that the 30-man pool is drawn from seven different Shute Shield clubs.

So, Behind the Ruck decided it was probably a good idea to sit down with incoming head coach John Manenti, orchestrator of those three aforementioned Eastwood Premierships, and get some answers straight from the horse’s mouth…

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Having been reticent to get involved in the NRC from day one, Eastwood are now running the Rams licence. How and why has this come about?

John Manenti: “There are a few parts to this. Firstly, Eastwood were never in a financial position to fully back the previous model that the Rams had in place – though we were happy enough to contribute players, staff and facilities when possible. With the sale of TG Millner imminent however, we now can financially support the NRC as we would like to.

“Secondly, we have realised the importance of the NRC in the Australian rugby landscape and its part in developing players for Super Rugby, and we’d like our players to have access to that pathway. In an attempt to find a home within one of the current franchises, the opportunity came up to take on the licence and things evolved from there. It’s not something we’d planned on doing, but we have embraced it and we’re excited about it.

“Thirdly, it’s probably evident that some of the perception around the NRC and Eastwood’s involvement has come from comments made in the past by our President, Brett Papworth. Brett, like many, supports grass roots and club rugby, and has always been very protective of the Shute Shield and in maintaining its importance. Now that it’s evident how the NRC can sit alongside the Shute Shield and the other states competitions, along with the fact it looks like it’s here to stay, Brett has been very supportive of the new venture.”

Why did it take three years to come to those conclusions, what changed?

JM: “The first year we put our heart and soul into it. Eastwood provided coaches, managers, physios, players, training gear and fields when required – I even ended up being the General Manager before a ball was bounced. And I can tell you from my position that no other club gave more in cash or kind in year one of the NRC, but we didn’t commit to being a financial supporter, largely because we didn’t have the money to do so. The previous owners of the licence did things differently to Eastwood, and it was there’s to do as they wish. For us, a club running on the sniff of an oily rag, we had to make our very existence the priority and not focus on saving rugby in Western Sydney. That’s not our responsibility, we need to look after our own backyard.”

Greater Sydney Rams squad

The original ‘template’ for the Rams was that they would draw players exclusively from Eastwood, West Harbour, Parramatta and Penrith. But a look back at previous squads shows that they have always spread their net far and wide with contributions from Southern Districts, Randwick, Sydney University, Manly and Eastern Suburbs over the last three years. However, your first squad contains players from a total of seven different Shute Shield clubs. Was that necessary?

JM: “If the Rams are to be competitive in the NRC we have to pick the best players available. If we want the NRC to be the best product it can be, we need to pick the best players available. As you will see from all the team lists in this year’s competition, the clubs have mixed and matched as needed in order to put their best squads together, and the Rams are no different.

“Unfortunately, there were many players in the Rams’ associated teams that opted to take opportunities at other franchises, head overseas, or to not even play in the NRC this year. That’s all fine in the modern era of rugby, but it’s my job to build a team that’s attractive for players to be at, and hopefully going forward we’ll be able to get some of those boys on board to play with the Rams.

“Selections have been difficult, but we’ve tried to reward performance and consistency throughout the Shute Shield. I’ve been delighted by the performance of West Harbour and the opportunity to include a large number of Pirates into the squad, and as well as the seven Shute Shield clubs represented in the team, we have representation from the bush with the Cowra Eagles through John Grant, and a former Wallaby returning from Bath in the UK, in Nathan Charles.”

There are already dissenting voices from both Parramatta and Penrith at the absence of any representation from their clubs. Is that reality merely a reflection of their relative ladder positions, or were there players that you looked at that didn’t make the cut for whatever reason?

“Many players took options elsewhere, possibly on the back of where they thought they’d get more game time. But I had three Parra boys lined up, and two went overseas – Tyrone Viiga to France and Senio Toleafoa to Japan – and Dave Lolohea opted for a move to the Rays instead. I would also have liked to get Niko Dalivusa from the Emus on board, but at this point in time, the logistics for him just don’t add up unfortunately. What we have done is focus on picking the best balanced squad we could, from players that chose to back themselves with the Rams.

“The best players need to be playing in the NRC. We have three teams in New South Wales sharing the Waratahs players, and we will have four of them in our squad – Jed Holloway, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Hugh Roach and Mack Mason. It will be the lowest amount for any team in the NRC – some squads have 15-plus Super Rugby players on their books. We don’t need a further handicap by not taking the best players available in the Shute Shield.”

It is a pretty handy-looking squad with a lot of proven talent alongside plenty of young potential. Is it a group you are excited to be working with?

JM: “I just want to get the best out of them. I want to get Jed Holloway back to his best and starting for the Tahs again; I think Adrian Hall can push for a Super Rugby contract, and Kelly Meafua is one of the most exciting players in the Shute Shield, so it will be great to see what we can get from him.”

You won three Premierships in five full years in charge at Eastwood before assuming the role of Director of Rugby. Have you been champing at the bit to get your hands on another footy team and just coach again, albeit in a short competition with plenty of travel?

JM: “In short yes, but I’ve been busy working with all grades at Eastwood and with the Aussie Sevens sides too. But I am looking forward to building a new team and giving our more fancied rivals a run for their money.

“There’s no doubt you have to start well, it’s too short a comp to be chasing your tail. But it’s also about keeping the boys stimulated at the end of a long Shute Shield season and enjoying themselves, embracing the travel, the challenge of playing near Super Rugby-strength teams, and just everything the NRC stands for.”

Manenti, John coaching 040409D-0572.JPG

Manenti (right) and former mentor Brian ‘Billy’ Melrose – Photo: SPA Images

There will also be a reunion between yourself and Brian Melrose in the coaches box. How will that ‘role-reversal’ play out given your previous working relationship with him in charge at Eastwood and you as his assistant?

“I’ve been very pleased to get the chance to work with Billy again. I served my apprenticeship under him and we have always enjoyed working together. He has one of the best win ratios across all the teams and competitions he’s been involved with, and he’s been hugely successful again this year, coaching Manly to the Minor Premiership. He has a fantastic rugby mind and we’re very lucky to have him with the Rams.

“We’re just coaches that get things done – we don’t need job titles. It’s fair to say Billy won’t be teaching the boys how to pack down, but we’re both multi-skilled and will work around each of our strengths. Interestingly, the Penrith coach is coaching the Rays, and the Warringah coach is coaching the Country Eagles, so why not the Manly coach coming to the Greater Sydney Rams? It’s good for the players and coaches to work in different setups with different people – we all continue to learn from such environments.”

Finally, the name has changed again – back to the Greater Sydney Rams. Was that part of wiping the slate clean and starting again with a fresh persona, or simply an obvious move given the spread of players across so many sides?

JM: “Being realistic, with significant representation from all over Sydney and particularly from Southern Districts, it makes no sense at all to call the team by a name that is un-representative. The reality is that we are up against the Sydney Rays and New South Wales Country Eagles, both names that suggest pretty large demographics. So likewise, we don’t want to box ourselves up into a small parcel. We are the ‘Greater’ Sydney Rams.”

But is there any concern that yet another name change is going to cause confusion for the ‘lay’ supporters that you’re trying to attract?

JM: “The best way to get supporters is by winning footy games and playing with passion. If we do that, it won’t matter what name we have, people will come to games and follow us. TG Millner Field is a great place to watch rugby, you can bring the family, and let the kids run around whilst the parents enjoy the hospitality and the footy. We’ve had consistently the best crowds in the Shute Shield for years, and we hope that will be replicated in the NRC.

“We kick off our season with a tough home game against NSW Country Eagles this Sunday – is there a better way to spend Father’s Day! And after hitting the road for games against the Rays, Perth Spirit and Melbourne Rising, we return to TG Millner to play the Fijian Drua on Saturday 7th October. That game will be preceded by the Australian Schoolboys v New Zealand Schoolboys, and Australia A v Fiji Schools. A wonderful day’s rugby and one not to miss.”

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