Murray Wenzel / AAP News
The Aussies 7s men are looking to make a statement at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
On a mission to be taken seriously, John Manenti says Commonwealth Games gold for Australia’s defunded men’s rugby sevens team would be a timely message to those doubting the program’s legitimacy.
The coach has overseen a remarkable turnaround since he and Tim Walsh, now back in charge of the Australian women’s team, swapped roles in the wake of a medal-less Tokyo Games.
The men’s program was also gutted of resources as part of Rugby Australia’s budget cuts, just six men offered full-time deals and Manenti left to procure fringe Super Rugby and club talent to fill his World Series squad.
They’ve defied those cuts and a long history of inconsistency though, Manenti tapping into his Shute Shield knowledge to build a squad that sits second with one World Series leg to play.
Wallabies star Samu Kerevi will miss the side’s two-Test tour of Argentina to join the squad at Birmingham’s Games later this week, while a maiden World Series title in late August and World Cup breakthrough in September beckon.
“In the space of six weeks we can write our own script on how we’re perceived,” Manenti told AAP.
“There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years; do we need it? Should it exist?
“The culling of the (full-time) players suggested they (RA) preferred to spend money in other places.”
Manenti was Walsh’s assistant when the women won Olympic gold in Rio, an achievement that earned the groundbreaking, fully-professional squad a certain mystique.
Manenti wants similar for the men’s team.
“The perception of the program wasn’t what it should have been; nobody knew where it sat in the rugby landscape,” he said of when he took over.
“For us to be taken seriously we have to be consistently on the podium.
“(Gold in Birmingham would) endorse the work they’re doing and maybe give some belief to some people around the place that this is a valid program that does have really important place in Australian rugby.
“Without enormous resources, we’re punching above our weight at times but we know that’s the road we have to take to get there.
“Samu, turning away Tests to come here, you can’t undervalue that … now the boys feel like it’s a program they can be proud of.”
Australia, who trained for the first time in Birmingham on Sunday, play Kenya, Uganda and Jamaica in pool games from Friday.
World Series leaders South Africa, Olympic champions Fiji and defending Commonwealth champions New Zealand headline their separate pools but dangers lurk in all four groups.
But Manenti said the addition of more-experienced club rugby talents had been key.
“They’re not going out playing South Africa and New Zealand s***ting themselves and the contracted guys are feeling a breath of fresh air, thinking ‘how good’s this’,” he said.
“We’ve been working out how to fight our way out of bad situations, making teams work hard to beat us and we’ll trust the form guide that got us here.”
AUSTRALIAN MEN’S SEVENS SQUAD:
Ben Dowling, Matt Gonzalez, Henry Hutchinson, Samu Kerevi, Nathan Lawson, Maurice Longbottom, Nick Malouf, Ben Marr, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Henry Paterson, Dietrich Roache, Corey Toole, Josh Turner.