You might be excused for thinking there’s a bit of a ‘getting the band back together’ feel about the Greater Sydney Rams coaching group in 2017.
John Manenti, General Manager and assistant coach in the inaugural season of the National Rugby Championship, is back as coach this season, and the man he assisted three seasons ago, Brian Melrose, is returning the favour this season as Manenti’s assistant.
“I’ve worked with ‘Billy’ quite a bit,” Manenti explained to RUGBY.com.au this week. “I worked with him in the Australian U20s, and at Eastwood prior to him going overseas, and obviously in the NRC too.”
“We’ve always had a pretty good working relationship, and he’s obviously one of the more successful coaches running around, so when the opportunity came to link up again, Billy was a very logical choice.”
The coming together of Manenti, Eastwood director of rugby in Sydney, and Melrose, Manly coach, is handy for another reason, too; the Rams in 2017 have recruited players from far wider than just their traditional western and southern Sydney catchment area, pulling in players from ten different clubs for this year’s NRC campaign.
Manenti’s explanation for recruiting from all corners of in Sydney is simple.
“The Sydney market is incredibly tough. I mean, to start with, we’re dividing one Super Rugby team by three, which no-one else has to do. And then when you take out Wallabies and injured players and players going overseas, you’re probably down to a dozen or maybe fifteen, of which we’ve got four (Jed Holloway, Hugh Roach, Taqele Naiyaravoro, and rookie Mack Mason),” he says.
“We have to pick the most competitive side we can, and when you see the three NSW teams, you see that the others have taken guys from everywhere and serviced themselves as they needed to, and so they should have.
“We can’t have the best players in Sydney not being picked up just because they’re not from a certain area; that’s not going to help us be competitive, and I say that about all three sides.
“It is about winning, and about giving players the opportunity to move through to Super Rugby. The only way we’re going to do that is to pick the best players, whether they come from our catchment clubs in western Sydney, or not.”
Manenti’s Rams squad features a good mix of quality Shute Shield players, along with some players who have had a taste of Super Rugby environments around the country. And after a bit of a rocky road pulling the squad together, he thinks he’s assembled a group ready to play well as a team.
“I think if you have a look at our squad, we’ve got a reasonably mature group of strong first grade players who have performed for multiple seasons, but without having a team full of rock stars,” Manenti begins.
“There’s not a heap of guys backing up from last year, mainly because they either chose to move on, or they’ve gone overseas, or whatever may be.
“Unfortunately, or perhaps understandably, people need to position themselves where they think they’re going to play footy, but as a coach, I’m never going to promise anyone anything, it’s all form based, and so when some people wanted to know if they were going to be a starting player, I couldn’t give them that assurance.
“I basically said, ‘If you’re the form player, we’ll pick you, and you’re not, we’ll pick someone else’. Some people didn’t like that.
“But I can assure you, the blokes that are with us want to be with us, and that’s the most important thing.”
Since being involved in the Greater Sydney Rams in 2014, and though he’s remained heavily involved with Eastwood throughout, Manenti has gained some excellent experience as an assistant coach within the Australian Sevens set-up. He’s looking forward to bringing much of what he’s learned in a specialised, high performance environment to the NRC level.
“The big thing about Sevens is that everything is highlighted by time and space, and I think now I’m far more aware of individual skill sets. You’re always learning, and being in the Sevens environment, I’ve learnt an enormous amount about preparation, and the on-field skills, but also the mental side of the game, you know, like how to get up for tournaments and things like that,” he explains.
“I’ve had a great experience with Tim Walsh and Andy Friend, to a lesser extent, and they’ve been fantastic to work alongside and learn new things, try new things, and I’ll be able to introduce a lot of that stuff, just as an individual skill set for the players.
“I’ve had a fairly good run in the Shute Shield, but it’s important to keep improving yourself as a coach, and the Sevens has been great for that.”
Getting players up for short tournaments is going to be a pretty handy skill in the NRC, with the whole competition lasting just eleven weeks, and in most of the other eight teams, players only just joining squads in the last week or two after club rugby finals campaigns around the country.
And Manenti’s challenge isn’t just getting his squad ready and playing well enough to challenge for the finals; the Rams have some big local derbies straight off the bat to the start their NRC season. Fortunately, with local derbies comes what could be very handy local knowledge.
“We’ve got the [NSW Country] Eagles and [Sydney] Rays in rounds one and two, so the Sydney component of our campaign will be won and lost in the first two weeks.
“They were one and two last year, and there’s some pretty high standards to compete with, so if we want to feature at the back end of the season, we going to need to start well with some good games.
“But we know a lot of these guys, too, and I think having a little bit of intel on each other will make for pretty good footy, and some pretty good entertainment straight up.”