The ex-NZ age-grade star who went from working in a chicken factory to developing one of Europe's top youth academies
– By Jeff Kavanagh
Working in a Christchurch chicken factory aged 22, with a pair of gammy shoulders from the strain of hanging poultry carcasses for eight hours a day, Kieran Manawatu wasn’t exactly living the dream.
A powerfully built back blessed with pace and a cannon of a right boot, he’d represented Buller, on the rugged West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, in age-group rugby and been good enough to be picked alongside future World Cup winner Colin Slade for the Canterbury U18 side in 2002, despite playing rugby league and just a solitary game of union that season.
Comfortable anywhere in the backline from 10 to 15, Manawatu made the Hawkes Bay U20s as a 17-year-old after shifting to Napier and was asked to join the province’s rugby academy, a potential stepping-stone to higher honours whose alumni include All Blacks Israel Dagg and Brodie Retallick.
Yet ankle tendons ruptured in training robbed him of the chance of playing with Slade, while an aching heart saw Manawatu pass up the spot at the academy, and the free tertiary study it offered, to return to Christchurch and his girlfriend at the time. And a job in the Tegel factory in Hornby.
“I’d left school at 16, worked in the chicken factory for four years and was thinking I’m going to be here for the rest of my life,” says the amiable, 34-year-old Manawatu, currently at home in COVID lockdown in Frankfurt, Germany. “I had no education, no life skills and then my brother Tim, who was playing for Piacenza in Italy, was contacted by someone he knew in Frankfurt looking for players and he was like: ‘Yip, my little brother will come whenever.’”
Until conversations with Tim, and later the captain of SC 1880 Frankfurt, Aaron Satchwell, a Kiwi who’d played professionally in the States, where he’d earned a call up to the USA Eagles, Manawatu had no idea rugby was played in Germany, let alone a living could be made from it.
On the table in August 2008 were return tickets to Frankfurt, free accommodation, gym membership, match fees and a salary that, while unlikely to make him rich, was sufficient to survive on. Like any back worth his salt, Manawatu spotted an opportunity and pinned his ears back.
“I talked to Aaron on a Wednesday and on the Sunday I flew to Germany,” Manawatu says with a laugh. “I didn’t even think about it, I quit my job – I’d never left New Zealand before, so it was a pretty big experience for me – and I just went for it. I was only going to come over for a year and I’ve been here 12.”
In archetypal Kiwi “She’ll be right” fashion, Manawatu also failed to mention to his future employers that, because of his shoulders, one of which had required surgery, he hadn’t actually played rugby for three seasons.
It was a state of affairs that was about to swiftly change. Three days after leaving New Zealand, Manawatu was playing a preseason match for Frankfurt against Hawick, an amateur club in Scotland. He hadn’t been to bed since getting on the plane in Christchurch.
“It was raining and I got a try, but I have no idea how I scored it. I remember getting the ball a few times and just kicking it because I didn’t really have any confidence, didn’t really know how to play.”
Unsurprisingly, given his lengthy lay-off from the game and the challenge of keeping up with a team composed mainly of ex-provincial representatives from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, Manawatu suffered a series of “niggly muscle injuries” that kept him sidelined for a large chunk of that first season in Germany.
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It was perhaps predictable that Frankfurt decided not to renew his contract. The club had, however, seen enough of fullback’s talent when fit to want to keep him on the playing roster, so tabled a different offer: a job as a gardener.
“It was a struggle,” says Manawatu of having to mow lawns and trim edges between training sessions while his salaried teammates did whatever took their fancy. “But I never felt like I’d made a mistake taking the job and staying in Frankfurt. I’d left the chicken factory and that had opened up my mind to what I could do.”
Any feelings of homesickness – Manawatu is one of five siblings, a twin, and a self-confessed “Mum’s boy” – were assuaged by the presence of brother Tim in Italy and girlfriend at the time Nicole, who’d joined him from New Zealand not long after his arrival, in Frankfurt.
He was also one of 12 Kiwis in a Frankfurt team bankrolled by Uli Byszio, a wealthy gold and silver trader whose sons played for the club. Weeknights were spent playing cards at each other’s apartments or going out for dinner and to the movies while weekends during the season were busy with matches in places as exotic as Heidelberg and Berlin. There were also plenty of evenings on the town sampling Frankfurt’s famed nightlife.
The arrival of Tim, an accomplished No 10 who’d won three division two national championships with Hawkes Bay in the early 2000s, at the club for the 2010-11 season only heightened Manawatu’s sense of comfort in his surroundings.
Happy, fit and free from injury, he ran in 26 tries that season and finished top scorer in the Bundesliga with 282 points, prompting Frankfurt to offer him a playing contract to ward off suitors from other clubs.
Nor had his red-hot form gone unnoticed at a higher level and Manawatu was called up to the Germany national team in 2012, having qualified for selection through the then 36-month residency rule.
He says that turning out in the black, red and gold of his adopted homeland for the first time remains one of his fondest rugby memories; dotting down in the dying minutes to win the test, against Czech Republic in Prague, was the cherry on the Black Forest Gateau.
“It was the first time I’d played for the national team and I’m not a German. I’d also always been quite a shy person, so I needed need to have a really good game to earn the respect of these boys and make me feel a bit better. After that game I was on cloud nine.”
Manawatu played a total of 11 tests for Germany, helping the team climb out of the second tier of the now defunct European Nations Cup and into a position where the country could compete for a place at the World Cup.
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He also scored seven tries in national colours, the last of them notched up in his final test, a 48-16 loss to Spain in Madrid in 2015.
“At the time I didn’t think it was going to be my last match as I’d just come back from a year off because of knee surgery,” Manawatu explains. “I played against Portugal, Romania and then Spain but I still had problems with my knee and I injured my shoulder when I scored against Spain. After that I’d had enough of injuries and decided to retire from playing rugby.”
A change of heart saw him train hard in the off-season, hoping to have a decent run the Bundesliga in 2016, which Frankfurt hadn’t won since the second of back-to-back titles in his first season at the club.
Fate had other ideas and a fractured finger in a preseason game against Luxembourg, requiring surgery and 18 months work with an occupational therapist to learn how to use his hand properly again.
The injury might have dealt a premature end to Manawatu’s playing days at the relatively young age of 29, but not his involvement with the club.
In 2012 Byszio, Frankfurt’s benefactor, had decided his money was best spent not on guns for hire, but on developing local talent. The number of foreign professionals on the books at Frankfurt was subsequently slashed from 15 to four and those who chose to stay and play would have to earn their crust coaching the U18s down.
Manawatu and his brother Tim were among those who remained. From the outset, the brothers tried to instil in their young charges a “Kiwi-style” way of playing the game, working on unstructured, free-flowing play as intently as set pieces and moves.
Proud of his heritage and his achievements as a Maori player in Europe, Manawatu also sought to engender elements of his culture in the teams he coached.
“I’ve tried to teach players the importance of respect, of being humble,” he explains. “We also had a call, ‘whanau’ which means family in Maori. Off the field, a group of the under-14 boys would come over to our house for All Blacks tests and we’d make breakfast together and watch the games. We brought a family culture to the club.”
Recruitment drives by the brothers and their coaching team, which included teammate Jason Campbell, a former Manawatu centre who played against the British and Irish Lions in 2005, also brought plenty of talent into the club from local schools: kids with physical attributes suited to rugby who wanted – or could be convinced – to play something different from football.
Sound recruitment, coaching and mentoring rapidly translated into success and in 2016 the club won every national youth title from U12s to 18s.
Frankfurt youth teams were also regularly travelling Europe playing and notching up wins over illustrious opponents, including London Irish and Irish schoolboy powerhouse Blackrock College in Dublin.
In 2015, Manawatu, who says he speaks German well enough to get by but coaches in English, took his U16s to Durban, where they narrowly lost 19-12 to a Sharks academy team.
On that trip to South Africa was 14-year-old Anton Segner, the schoolboy prodigy who went on to captain Nelson College’s 1st XV and make the New Zealand Schools team. The 6’4’’ (192cm), 108kg flanker now plies his trade for Mitre 10 Cup champions Tasman.
“I coached Anton from under-12s to under-16s,” says Manawatu. “He had so much talent and was getting wasted in Germany. We had a good relationship with his parents and Tim, who was the head of youth rugby at the time, reached out to Nelson College and that sort of started his path to where he is now.”
Not that Segner has been Frankfurt’s only export to a prestigious New Zealand rugby school or to do well overseas.
“We’ve had six guys go to Nelson College, one boy went to Scots College in Wellington, two more to Burnside High School in Christchurch, and another to England before he got a professional contract in the United States,” explains a clearly proud Manawatu.
It’s fitting that the Kiwi, who eventually took over as Frankfurt’s Director of Youth Rugby after this brother’s return home in 2016, has been helping German players to forge paths to New Zealand given his own journey in the opposite direction over a decade ago.
“For me it’s just giving these boys opportunity to go to places like New Zealand, England and Ireland to give rugby a good crack.”
Back in Frankfurt, the club’s investment in youth rugby by the club reaped the ultimate reward in 2019, with the red and blacks capturing every national championship from the U12s to the Bundesliga.
Having given rugby a more than decent nudge himself in Germany, Manawatu had planned to move home with his partner of 10 years, Nina, last year to pursue a Bachelor of Sport Coaching at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.
That plan hit the buffers with the global outbreak of COVID-19 a few months before the end of the 2019-20 season.
“I decided to stay one more year coaching and have the farewell and another crack at another championship because I didn’t want to be leaving during a pandemic,” says Manawatu, who is now leaving in May this year. “I had no idea it was going to go on this long and I’m going to be leaving during it anyway, but that’s just the way it is.”
Understandably, many of his young players are finding the lack of rugby, its structure and camaraderie during the latest COVID-19 lockdown, which has closed schools and limited households to contact with a single other person at a time in Germany, challenging.
“I’ve had to deal with guys getting into trouble with alcohol and drugs and it was quite an eye-opener because you don’t see how actually important it is for these kids to have a rugby team’s discipline and goals,” he explains. “When you take that away they look for other things to occupy themselves.”
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Manawatu, meanwhile, has managed to keep himself busy by finishing an online university preparation course and taking Stella, his eight-year-old Yorkshire terrier, for walks.
He’s also had plenty of time to reflect on the journey that has taken him from a dead-end job on a production line in New Zealand to a director of rugby at one of Germany’s most successful clubs, and his determination to continue moving in the right direction.
“Where I’ve come from in 2008 when if you put me in a group of five people, I couldn’t talk,” says Manawatu. “I’m just a much more confident man and I know what I want and I know what I’ve done. It’s not so much playing, but youth coaching that has shaped me into who I am now.
“My main goal after doing my degree is to try and get into a professional rugby team, but mainly focus on an academy. I get more reward out of teaching younger fellas and you can see more growth in that. I’ve got seven nephews and nieces that play in New Zealand, so I’d like to coach them as well. I want to stay with it.”
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