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'Challenges are there, they always have been for me' - Simon Mannix

By Jon Newcombe
Simon Mannix had a bitter-sweet experience during his time with Pau - NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Simon Mannix’s career as an international head coach gets underway for real this Saturday when Portugal take on Namibia in the first Test to be played in Windhoek post-Covid.

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The former All Blacks fly-half did have a spell in charge of Singapore’s men’s team but the Covid pandemic prevented him from conducting a single 15-a-side training session let alone taking them into battle. “I remained one of the only unbeaten international coaches for two years!” he jokes.

Between keeping Biarritz in Pro D2 and taking on his new role, Mannix has only had a short window to get to work with Portugal before their departure for Africa, with the Welwitchias fixture followed by the ultimate test in rugby: a game against two-time defending world champions South Africa in their own backyard in Bloemfontein.

You get the sense Mannix is just as excited as the players; it has been a long time coming after all. “How many times have these guys played South Africa in South Africa? To go and play the number one team in the world in Bloemfontein, you have got to be excited by that – and nervous, obviously, with the respect that we all have for the South Africa jersey. It is an incredible opportunity for these young guys.”

During last year’s Rugby World Cup, Portugal briefly got to number 12 in the world rankings. Since then, mainly because of their shock defeat to Belgium in the opening round of the Rugby Europe Championship, Os Lobos have slipped to 16th.

Improving on that will take some doing this summer given their schedule but Mannix believes 12th is something to aim for in the not-too-distant future.

“Top 12 is doable if I look at the world ranking points,” he said. “To do that you need to beat everyone just above you and then you need to take a tier one scalp. There’s games there that you can target.”

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Mannix is never one to shy away from a challenge. He was given six months to keep Biarritz in the French Second Division, and he delivered … just, despite the club being a financial basket case when he first arrived.

Dealing with aversity comes to him much easier now as a coach than it ever did in his pomp as a young prodigy destined for greatness in an All Black jersey. Mannix takes us back to 1990.

“Having toured Australia with New Zealand U21s, I was picked on the bench for the 1990 Bledisloe Cup series, aged just 18, and was also in the squad for the tour to France later that year. Mentally I wasn’t ready,” he recalled.

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“Grant Fox got a hamstring niggle before the first game, against a Provence/Cote D’Azur Invitation XV in Toulon, and I came in and had a shocker. Everything happened extremely quickly and that was start of the downfall for me with New Zealand rugby and the challenges I had to front up with myself later in life.

“I got picked again in ’91 for the tour to Argentina and played okay but wasn’t picked for the World Cup squad. I then had to wait until 1994 for my fourth cap and my first (full cap) and only start, against France, in Christchurch.

“We got beaten up all over the park and lost 22-8. It was Jonah Lomu’s debut but whereas he went on to become the game’s biggest superstar, I never wore the black jersey again.

“Like everyone back then, I placed so much emphasis on the importance of the All Blacks jersey, and to be perceived as a failure was something I couldn’t handle. Outwardly I was this arrogant fly-half who has no issues but inside I was a mess.”

Whilst that is all in the past, Mannix does feel being a member of the ‘One-Cap Club’ helped to define the person he is today.

“I think my whole career was about that one performance for the All Blacks back in 1990 as a 19-year-old, my whole career has been about trying to prove something the whole time.

“This (the Portugal job) is an opportunity with a totally difference perspective and as a 52-year-old, with maybe 20 years of coaching under my belt, I can see things totally differently now.

“Challenges are there, they always have been for me, and I hope they always will be, because the time they aren’t, that is the time to shift onto something else.”

Mannix’s task now is to pick up the baton from Patrice Lagisquet, who led Os Lobos to their first-ever Rugby World Cup win, as well as a draw against Georgia, at last year’s tournament in France, where he has most experience as a coach – at Racing 92, Pau, Arcachon in the Bay of Biscay and then Biarritz.

Portugal fans, and indeed rugby fans worldwide, will be delighted to hear that the New Zealander is a big advocate of the entertaining style of rugby that Portugal played under their former head coach, while his former team-mate at Gloucester, Olivier Azam, is on board to add extra steel to the forwards.

“I saw Patrice Lagisquet in the December before the opportunity came up for myself (to coach Portugal) and I was delighted to see him to say just how much I appreciated the running rugby and the willingness to move the ball and to play the game where the space is,” said Mannix, who played fly half for Sale as well as Gloucester in the English Premiership when his time in New Zealand rugby came to an end.

“It is something that I have always adhered to, and I thought he did a wonderful job and his team embraced it. They played with a style that people are happy to see rather than teams just wanting to kick the ball all day.

“They are a very good athletes and prepared for that style of rugby. I thought they played the game in exactly the right fashion and it is something I will be looking to continue to build on

“I thought their structure and organisation was good. Okay, it took them until the 80th minute to beat Fiji but fair play to them, they stuck to what they do, and they do it very well.

“There is so much to enjoy about what they did but you can’t keep looking back, you have to take it forward, and that is where the challenge is going to be.”

Having seen how Lagisquet’s strong relationship with Top 14 and Pro D2 clubs served Portugal well in terms of more players becoming available, the Portuguese Rugby Federation will, no doubt, have taken Mannix’s extensive experience in French club rugby into consideration when they began the lengthy interview process.

“Building those relationships (with the clubs) is key. It’s been good having my feet back on the ground for the last four months in Pro D2, it’s certainly helped me to re-establish the links with the guys who I’ll be chatting to about having access to their players,” said Mannix, when first taking on the job.

“I think there will be enough respect within the game; I have been around the French scene for a long time.”

Star scrum-half Samuel Marques had planned to come out of retirement but the decision has been taken to leave the 35-year-old behind because of a minor injury. A return to Portugal colours in November, though, has not been ruled out.

If Marques does make it back to the Test arena, it will reunite him with Mannix almost a decade after their time together at Pau.

Leading Pau to promotion to the Top 14 in 2015 – after arriving from “an eye-opening spell as Rodd Penney’s assistant at Munster – and then being sacked abruptly the following season, was an experience that scarred Mannix and prompted his decision to accept the offer to get away from it all and become Singapore’s head coach.

To an extent he was still in the same mindset when he returned to France’s lower divisions with Arcachon. Breathing new life into Biarritz, however, helped to restore his fragile confidence.

“We created a hell of a rugby team down there (Pau) and won the Pro D2 title at a canter. Colin Slade and Conrad Smith were so influential on the young group of local players we had there and we’re seeing that now with how well Antoine Hastoy is playing,” he said about his time at Pau.

“After four years of success a change in the JIFF regulations caused us some issues in terms of recruitment and things didn’t go quite as well after that and I was fired with two to three games of the season to go, even though we were safe.

“It was tough to go through that given I had invested so much into Pau and the old fear of failure from my playing days returned to some extent.”

Mannix can now look back on that time philosophically, and with pride. “The advice given to me in ‘96 when I started my gypsy lifestyle as a coach was to always leave a club in a better position than when you arrived. As long as you do that, there isn’t a problem.”

All of Portugal hopes he can do the same in international rugby.

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Wonton 3 hours ago
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One game against Fiji is not enough to show that a player is ready to play the likes of South Africa. Spreading the ball wide too much increases the risk of turnovers and we turned the ball over 20 times against Fiji which is a lot more than what we did in the two England tests. We actually turned the ball over the same amount of times (20) against England in the 2019 semi final which we lost. Fiji didn’t make us pay for those turnovers but other teams will. In the 2nd test against England this year we had 100% success rate on attacking rucks. That’s the first time the AB’s have achieved this since the 2019 opening game of the RWC against South Africa. South Africa won last years RWC and Jesse Kriel did not pass once. The days of the Conrad Smith type centre might be over. Also Conrad Smith debuted in 2004 but he did not become an incumbent until Nonu did also in 2008. As for Rieko Ioane he and Jordie Barrett put in some very strong midfield hits in the 2nd test forcing turnovers several times. Rieko Ioane hasn’t played wing in years. If Proctor is moved to 13 then the best I think Ioane can hope for is an impact player off the bench. He does not have the aerial game of Caleb Clarke or the workrate of Tele’a for 11 and going to be selected over Jordan at 14. However its much too early to replace Rieko with Proctor. Rieko was excellent in the knock out rounds of the RWC. All Proctor has to show on his test CV is a good game against Fiji.

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Nick 5 hours ago
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Its almost like you read my comment on the other site on sunday morning Nick - you flagged all the same examples! 😝 Frost was motm for mine. That eg in the 56th minute in particular impressed me, nothing but sheer effort and a dupont/smith-like tracking line behind the D. Surely an effort like that from frost marries perfectly with that quote from schmidt at the start of the year about effort and work rate being 70-80% and talent is just the icing on top… What it also showed though was the players not making that effort, in that example he goes past both valetini and ikitau, and in the eg that finished with valetini scoring hunter paisami barely breaks a canter to support the break. And then there was the chase from wright and lancaster for the 2nd georgian try! One blemish - at kickoff I saw frost miss or get bumped off a few tackles and I felt like I saw what has been holding his selection back. I think because he is so big and is trying to get low to tackle, he seems to dip his head and ends up losing his balance or ability to adjust and ends up missing or making a soft hit. I think in the first 2 minutes he misses or makes 2-3 soft tackles, but you could clearly see the work rate and desire! He (the pod) also missed a kick restart or two? Also very happy to see harry wilson back in the fold. What impressed me from him wasn’t all the usual stuff he is known for, but all the other bits that usually let him down. He looked surprisingly good in the air at lineout time, physical at the breakdown, and good in the maul peeling off 3 georgians for one of the maul tries. Id have frost, skelton, wright as my 4-6 with LSL and wilson on the bench. i’m once again unconvinced by tom wirght - he was very good game 1, but game 2-3 he was back to more rocks than diamonds. There is no real other player to usurp him really so he stays in the team for now but I think Joe should put kellaway wherever he serves the team best and wright can be moved around him. Did donno do enough to overtake noah? My gut says no. They clearly had a plan to attack more so he looked better in that regard because he just had more opportunity, but they looked better off tate (who had a v good game also) then they did off donno.

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