League: Next time, he'll step on the Gas

By Chris Rattue, Andy Hay

If Simon Mannering's chase of Mark Gasnier had followed the turbo-charged path of his league career, he would have caught the star Australian centre the other night.

Gasnier remained just out of reach over the 80-metre pursuit, although the young Warrior - making his test debut - forced him to score in the corner.

"I was pretty gutted I didn't catch him. I thought I had him but he put on a little step at the end," said Mannering, 20, from the Kiwis' Melbourne hotel this week. Big steps are more Mannering's lot.

As in his Gasnier chase, Mannering's league career has been a sudden turn followed by a mad dash to catch the big time.

It's been a winning run. As Mannering showed in the first Tri-Nations test, his rocket fuel is a tank-load of determination.

Napier-born Mannering's rise to the Kiwis ranks came just three years after he was a Nelson College rugby centre of no outstanding ambition. Just another footballer really, trundling around in the centres. Yet after just three league games, he made the national secondary school side.

In 2004, he was a Junior Kiwi. And 24 NRL first grade games were enough for Kiwis coach Brian McClennan to play the young NRL in the forwards against Australia.

His entry into the game is due entirely to the NZRL having planted a development officer - former Canterbury representative and brief Parramatta hopeful Paul Bergman - in Nelson at the time of Mannering's first XV career. Bergman was only there for a couple of years, and Nelson hasn't had a development officer since.

From the early days, Bergman believed Mannering's size and professional attitude made him a top prospect. He persuaded Mannering into the school's pickup league team for the six-week national championship in 2003, and then across the water into the capital's under-18 side, followed by the Bergman-coached Wellington Bartercard Cup team.

Mannering slept on Bergman's couch, and the coach got him a job installing insulation. At times, the young footballer cried enough and was ready to pack his bags. If this was a made-for-telly movie, coach Bergman would become a cross between a superhero and a surrogate father at this point. Not so. Bergman credits Mannering's father Guy, an accountant for fishing firm Talley's, as the supportive driving force behind this career.

When young Simon had thoughts of returning home, Bergman rang Guy and the ensuing father-and-son talks kept Simon Mannering in the game. Bergman recalls: "Guy Mannering was a rugby union joker and was fairly apprehensive at first. But he was the force behind all of this. He even flew to virtually every Bartercard Cup game Simon played."

Bergman's own professional league career derailed in Sydney during the early 1990s - the beaches and parties proved telling distractions. So Bergman, whose brother Phil was once a Warriors prospect, talks authoritatively when he says family support and a familiar environment are vital in the teenage years, even if there are exceptions.

And Bergman is adamant that the backing Mannering has received from his parents has been instrumental, whereas others have had lonely struggles in Australia.

Mannering came from a junior era which produced a batch of Wellington youngsters snapped up by NRL teams. They include Billy Manu (Storm), Isaac Luke (Bulldogs/Souths), Marvin Karawana (Bulldogs), John TeReo (Broncos), Wiremu Weepu (Panthers), Josh Davis (Parramatta) and Hanan Laban (Knights). Already, Weepu - scorer of the winning try in an upset Jersey Flegg (under-20s) final win over Newcastle - and Karawana have been cut.

"They return here feeling they are failures which isn't the case and are often lost to league. They might go to union, or they don't play anything at all," says Bergman, who is running the NZRL's pilot regional academy in Wellington.

"When you are training in the Australian heat, things aren't going well and you have no support to go home to, it's easy to suddenly feel lost."

The NZRL's response has been the Bergman-run academy, with 70 youngsters who are drilled in professional training methods, while having their education encouraged. The NZRL is talking to NRL clubs about linking up with the scheme. A key aim is to produce more stars for the Kiwis by keeping them here a bit longer. "That's until they have the emotional maturity to deal with the training over there and, how do I put this? - the Sydney entertainment scene," says an older, wiser Bergman.

These are not matters to concern Mannering anymore, however. He has already made the test grade, having only made his first-grade debut against the Broncos midway through the 2005 season.

HE ended up in Auckland - resisting interest from the Bulldogs and Eels - taking up an offer from former Warriors coach Daniel Anderson.

Despite shin problems last year and further leg injury problems in 2006, Mannering has become a pivotal Warrior and test rookie. He powered through the work against Australia, playing the first 50 minutes then coming back for about 12 minutes more. Bergman says: "Fitness is 90 per cent determination."

Bergman likes to run a training exercise for his kids, called "shark bait". Players wrestle 15 opponents in succession, one minute at a time. It destroys some, others are physically sick. None ever lasted like Simon Mannering.

"He would wrestle the last one as strongly as the first" says Bergman.

Bergman adds: "People realised the other night how fast he is, too.

"Mark Gasnier is a freak ... Simon would have been tiring at that point in the game - but he almost caught the greatest player in the world. Simon will be a household name in two or three years time, maybe sooner. He will end up in the forwards and become our Steve Menzies."

And if Mannering has to chase Gasnier again, don't be surprised if he hauls him in.


KEY MATCHUPS IN MELBOURNE

David Kidwell v Willie Mason

There is no more anticipated duel than this one. Mason's talking revenge after Kidwell's "cheap shot" last Saturday. Kidwell lacks courage and is reluctant to run the ball back at players he's just given the bash to, say Mason and Kangaroos coach Ricky Stuart. How will Kidwell react? You might feel the impact in your living room. The key for the Kiwis though will be for Kidwell to a) not get blindsided himself and b) not get blinded by the hype and instead look for those other inspirational touches he can produce.

Shontayne Hape v Greg Inglis

A big ask for Hape, who was in Melbourne waiting for the Kiwis and has had this week to reacquaint himself with the "family" after his season in Super League. A player in whom McClennan has deep trust because he's done any and every job asked of him by the Kiwis coach. Now he has to keep Greg Inglis scoreless on the wing. The Kiwis' defence gave him plenty of room last week and, as he showed with the Aussies' final try, he doesn't need very much. The defence is one thing McClennan is sure to have addressed this week and, in Hape, he also knows he has someone who can turn quickly and chase down the Aussies' attacking kicks, an area where Tame Tupou got caught short at Mt Smart.

Nathan Fien/ Jerome Ropati v Cameron Smith

If Fien plays the Kiwis get a specialist to run the dummy-half duties and that'll be crucial to giving them the spark and organisation they need. The Kiwis were too predictable in that area last week. They need variety - inside balls, switches to create momentum and then get Stacey Jones in range to create uncertainty with his kicks. With Smith, and Shaun Berrigan off the bench, the Aussies have a huge upper hand - so the Kiwis need to be more vigilant with their marker defence in Melbourne.

Stacey Jones v Darren Lockyer

Jones was short of a run last week and will be all the better for the blowout. He's someone worth having around in the charged atmosphere of Melbourne. He was left a bit short of options last week and very rarely put the Aussies in two minds with a dart or two. The Kiwis pack need to get him some decent ground gain this week to give him kicking options. The Aussies swallowed up the high ball all too easily, even in the wind at Mt Smart. Lockyer was ice-cool in game one, even when things hit boiling point in the big biff. He stays detached but focused, never pulled into the side issues. The Kiwis have to find some way of upsetting his rhythm, getting in to that protected space he seems to occupy just behind the front line.

- Andy Hay

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