Finals fever: Being John Manenti – Eastwood guru’s last hurrah

Photo: SPA Images

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If you wanted to look at a multitude of factors ahead of this weekend’s Intrust Super Shute Shield Qualifying Finals, in order to try and predict a possible eventual winner, you could have done worse than take a look at the coaching pedigrees on display.

I’m not a betting man, but even a one-off tipster knows that a horse with prior success over a similar distance offers a fairly sensible option for you to part with your hard earned lolly. So if this was merely a race between the six coaches, you’d get short-odds on John Manenti to romp home with Darren Coleman a gallant runner-up, given they are the only two involved to have tasted victory on the final day thus far.

Coleman of course is the incumbent, having masterminded Warringah’s dramatic fairy tale run home last season. Manly’s Brian Melrose has made finals football a ‘lay down misere’ for his teams over the years, but is yet to walk off with the big prize. Northern Suburbs’ Shannon Fraser is preparing for his fourth successive year at the business end with two different clubs, and is just looking to go that couple of steps further for his maiden title, while Robert Taylor (Sydney University) and Pauli Taumoepeau (Eastern Suburbs), have superbly guided their teams to the top six in their first year of coaching 1st grade, and seem more than likely to make that an annual fixture.

But if it’s past form you’re looking for then Manenti is your man. In his six full seasons as head coach since taking over the reins at Eastwood halfway through 2009 – he stepped back to take a generic look at the club from a Director of Rugby perspective for a couple of seasons – he has guided them to four Minor Premierships, four grand finals, and three Intrust Super Shute Shield Premierships. He knows what it takes.

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Celebrating the 2011 Premiership with skipper Hugh Perrett – Photo: SPA Images

Sport doesn’t quite work like that obviously, and often a coach is only as good as the talents at his disposal. But there is no denying that when it comes to getting teams to the pointy end of a season, and in a position to strike for home, he has a happy knack. The twist in the tale here of course, is that he has managed to do it again in 2018 whilst also spending much of the year coaching and travelling around the globe with the Australian Women’s Sevens team.

An assistant to previous head coach Tim Walsh, Manenti stepped into the top job on an interim basis after the Commonwealth Games, and after guiding the ‘golden girls’ to a second World Series title, he was rightfully given the role permanently until 2021. All up this year, he has overseen a run that encompassed silver medals in both Langford and Paris, bronze in Kitakyushu, and bronze at the World Cup in San Francisco just four weeks ago.

Quite how he has managed to divide his time up to adequately oversee both roles is beyond comprehension. But for a rugby obsessive like Manenti, it has been the labour of love he always dreamt of when he was spending his days working in the family firm, as part of one of Australia’s largest hospitality industry consulting and brokerage organisations. After years of donning two hats, he finally made rugby his daily life.

“At the end of the day, when you’re coaching you want to be hands on,” he says. “I’m now a full-time coach so I’m literally coaching rugby seven days a week. But every day I’m going to work I’m enjoying it – not that I didn’t enjoy working with the family! But it’s a lucky position to be in.

“I love working with the girls, I love going in there everyday and talking footy and then coming over to Eastwood at night and working with them, and with the young coaches that I think have got great futures. I don’t see it as being about me. My wife might tell you it’s been a tough year because I haven’t been home a lot, and she and the kids have been super supportive. But I feel very fortunate to have the responsibility to be looking after the various programs I’m in.”

Those ‘young coaches’ he mentions are also integral to this story, for it would be grossly unfair to play down the role that Ben Batger, Andrew Clyne and Matty Nilan respectively, have played in holding down the fort while Manenti has been jetting in and out on his Sevens duties.

The plan before a ball was kicked this season was for the aspiring trio – all Eastwood alumni – to learn the ropes under the head coach, with a view to assuming control at some point in the future. But Manenti’s full-time commitment to the Women’s Sevens cause as they begin the build-up to defending their Olympic title in Tokyo in 2020, has accelerated their required rate of learning to the point where he has taken more of a back seat role as the season has progressed.

With this year now becoming his swansong at Eastwood, the need for his proteges to find their feet in their roles is a hugely important cornerstone for the immediate future of the club. And he couldn’t be happier with the manner in which they have all applied themselves.

“Benny, Andrew and Matty have very much run the team for most parts, and even when I’m here I’m cautious not to be too disruptive by coming in and going out,” he explains. “I’m working more on them and getting them up to speed with the messages and things and they’ve done a fabulous job. That’s been done for a reason because I’m not here next year and it’s all about progression, so I’ve been very much sitting behind those guys and giving them direction. The load on them has been significant with me away but they’ve all stepped up really well and I’m very pleased with the job they’ve done.

“There are days where I am more hands on, because there are things that I like to do and I love coaching the boys. But as much as I can, I let them have space and we talk about ‘What’s your message here?’ or ‘What would you be thinking here?’ etc. Benny played under me for eight years and he’s often saying what I’m saying before I’ve said it, so I just nod. Not that I’m always right, but it’s good that we’re thinking along the same lines! Clyney has done the same, and Matty Nilan always adds value, often bringing a different point to the discussion.

Eastwood coaches_2018_SG

Andrew Clyne (2nd left) and Ben Batger have helped run the show alongside Matt Nilan for Eastwood this year in Manenti’s Sevens-enforced absences – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

“On game day I’ll do half-time and the last minute chat ,but ‘Batg’ will do the pre-game, and the three of them will do the reviews, and then I’ll add things or talk to them about stuff. They’ve all got good footy brains, it’s just been about working out how to function as a group and how to bring the best out of the team. Ben Batger’s been commentating as a player out on the field for years, now I get to hear him talk about it in the box next to me!”

They come into this afternoon’s game off the back of an honourable draw against Manly at Manly Oval last weekend. It was a result that had greater ramifications for the Marlins in terms of finals, and there’s no masking the fact that the Woodies contrived to let a 22-0 lead slip, but Manenti feels that it still provided the coaching team with plenty of optimism ahead of today’s challenge.

“There was a heap of good stuff that we can get out of that game,” he says. “It was a typical finals style of football, hard and physical, and they fired a few shots and did well with it, and a few times things went our way. But our attitude and energy was really good. Manly will obviously be disappointed because they were playing for a home semi-final, and there was a bit going on there with us having to look at the score from the other game. But for me, it’s more about momentum and style of footy going into finals.”

What impressed me the most about the performance, was the willingness to shift the ball wide at pace, the support of the ball-carrier, and the desire to keep the ball alive with offloads. Having witnessed a rather cumbersome Eastwood all the way back in round one, a side seemingly built on size and power than guile and invention, this was an altogether different beast.

Manenti’s Premiership winning sides weren’t exactly bereft of flair, but their hallmark has always been work rate, commitment and execution off the back of a solid set-piece. So I couldn’t help but wonder if all that time spent within the Sevens environment, where handling, offloads, running lines and support play are amplified, hadn’t begun to filter its way into his XV’s mindset. With players such as former-Sevens star Pama Fou in your line-up, it seems an obvious embellishment to introduce.

“There’s no doubt that everything you do in Sevens gets magnified because of time and space, so there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve been able to bring back,” he affirms. “Sometimes the boys are a bit funny about it because they are like ‘Oh, that’s the Sevens stuff’. It is, but what you have to understand is that in Sevens you don’t have the chance to get it wrong because of the time and space. If you turn a ball over because you present poorly there’s no second chance. Here, you’ve got 14 other blokes that can maybe get you out of trouble.

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Celebrating Olympic gold with Ellia Green and co. in Rio

“There’s no doubt that my learnings and my work in the Sevens has given me some more understanding of time and space and drills to maximise that. So I’m just feeding into the other coaches to try and understand why we are doing certain things and certain drills, because anyone can learn a lot from the skill sets needed in Sevens.

“We are a little bit limited at times around our cattle, but I feel we’re moving the ball reasonably well and we can play a little bit more expansively. Historically, when we had Jai [Ayoub] we relied heavily on him, but we’ve got other options now around him in how we play that game. Pama is a strike weapon, Fabian [Goodall] is a strike weapon and we’ve got Liam [Windon], Joshy Nohra and Sarksie [James Sarks], so we have got weapons that can fire. We’ve also got Blake Sutton who is solid and takes a bit of heat off the five-eight.”

Having said all that, it is those basic tenets of the game that he constantly reinforces, that he expects to provide the platform for any success in the finals.

“I don’t think I’m offending anyone when I say they’re not the most talented group that I had in my time here. But they’re very team-orientated and very keen on working for each other, and there’s some good experience in certain positions that matter. We obviously lost Gonzo [Matt Gonzalez] for the season and it would’ve been great to have him on board, but if we can get through the season with Snowy [Mick Snowden] it would be a credit to how he’s played.

“Obviously, Jai’s been in and out and he’s an experienced player, but people like Rob Lagudi have been around for a while now and he’s a seriously good footy player. There’s not a great deal that separates your experienced good first graders with Super Rugby players – there’s something there but not a massive amount. I think this group has that, not necessarily with all the Flash Harry’s or a little bit of x-factor at times, but they’ve rolled their sleeves up and had a bit of a tradesmen mentality and I think that can win finals.

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Pama Fou has brought some added x-factor to the Woodies this season -Photo: Serge Gonzalez

“If you look at the Rats last year I sort of see them a bit that way too, a tradesmen team that worked really hard. They had x-factor but it wasn’t ridiculous, it was team culture and character that got them where they needed to go. I did say from the start of the year that this was a team that’s going to have to work hard, and if we make the finals we were capable of doing anything. So the first step we’re there, and we’ve got a hard road ahead because Norths are very good.”

That attitude and desire to go to the well is something Norths will be hugely mindful of this afternoon, when they host the Woodies at North Sydney Oval. Despite finishing three places above them on the final ladder, and carrying much of the favouritism heading into the clash, the Shoremen will be all too aware that a Manenti-coached side simply will not die wondering. And they also have the relatively recent experience of a 30-22 defeat at the hands of the Woodies to contemplate.

After yesterday’s results, a loss would still see Norths into the semis as the highest ranked loser. It’s a given that they won’t be playing on that in their preparation for today, that’s not how a team that has featured in successive grand finals rolls. But the very fact that Eastwood are in a ‘must-win’ situation, does make them an even more dangerous animal.

“What we have got is a few guys that have been around finals football before – as have Norths and other teams – but hopefully, that will count for something,” says Manenti. “I think we’re probably in a little bit better shape than we were this time last year, and we’ve got a lot more energy around our defensive systems and our patterns of attack. Jackson Bird was very much hurried into the team when we weren’t ready last season, whereas this year, that experience has put him in good stead.

“I definitely think that Norths are a very credentialled side, and it’s going to take a better performance than last week against Manly to beat them. But I definitely feel that we have that performance within us, and if we get things right, I certainly feel we can be in the contest again.

“We’ll just focus on this game and if we get through, worry about what happens after that. Can we win it? I think we have a team that can but we’re going to need do things really well for three weeks to do that.”

Given his track record, you just wouldn’t bet against them…

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