x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

For Jeremy Manning, it was a rugby offer he could not refuse

Next stop on Jeremy Manning's global rugby tour is with the London Harlequins at the Premiership Sevens Series and inaugural World Club Sevens, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ Jeremy Manning, who is the club’s new coach, will play in this weekend’s Premiership Sevens in London. Christopher Pike / The National
Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ Jeremy Manning, who is the club’s new coach, will play in this weekend’s Premiership Sevens in London. Christopher Pike / The National

DUBAI // On Saturday, Jeremy Manning was babysitting in the south of France, on Monday he was taking his first training session as coach of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins, and today he will arrive in London ready for three weeks of intense, illustrious rugby sevens.

The New Zealand-born Manning, 27, has been invited to play for London's Harlequins in this weekend's JP Morgan Premiership Sevens Series and the inaugural World Club Sevens, which take place at Twickenham on August 17 and 18.

Conor O'Shea, Harlequins' director of rugby, contacted Andy Cole, the chairman of the London club's Abu Dhabi affiliates, to inquire about Manning's availability. With Cole having welcomed the interest – "it is a massive thing for us", he said – O'Shea then called the player direct.

"I was absolutely surprised," Manning said.

"Once I finalised the fact I was going to be head coach with the Harlequins out here, Conor literally just rang me up and said: 'Congratulations, I've got a proposition for you.' I'm not going to say no to that. It's potentially three of the biggest non-international tournaments around the world and it's nice to feel wanted."

Manning has been in demand this year. Since the Dubai Sevens, last December, he has been invited to play in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, London, Prague and Ibiza. He has already accepted that because of his new role in the UAE capital and his growing portfolio as a fitness instructor, he will likely have to decline invites from Nairobi, Shanghai and Hawaii.

Fortunately, with Ramadan meaning many of his personal training clients are either fasting or on vacation, turning down the chance to play in London this month never crossed his mind. The World Club Sevens will for the first time bring together some of the world's leading names in club and provincial rugby from the northern and southern hemispheres, including Auckland, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and the ACT Brumbies.

"To be out here in the Middle East and doing what I love doing yet still being able to go mix it with the professional boys is just fantastic," said Manning, a former Newcastle and Munster back. "If it wasn't the quiet period, I wouldn't be able to do it, but it's a fantastic opportunity for me, not just in terms of playing sevens, but also to get the chance to shadow Conor, who is arguably one of the best coaches in Europe."

O'Shea, formerly of London Irish, is keen to build a mutually beneficial relationship throughout the Harlequins franchise, with Manning being joined in the squad by Patrice Agunda of African sister club Kenya Harlequins.

Meetings are planned for the coming weeks to attempt to set up a deal where London-based players returning from injury and in need of game time will travel to the UAE to build up their match fitness.

"It's something the affiliated clubs can do," Manning said.

With the World Club Sevens being broadcast internationally, Manning's involvement this month will drop him back into the limelight. He insists, however, he is not actively looking for a return to professional rugby.

In the past year, he has turned down six offers from professional clubs in France and New Zealand and while he concedes he came close to accepting one of them, for a three-month stint, the relaxed life he enjoys in the UAE convinced him otherwise.

"The rugby lifestyle is great, but you're living back-to-back winters," he said.

Would he reject an offer to return to the Premiership?

"You never know," he said. "I'm not just going to London to make up numbers, I'm going to perform. Whenever I get asked to play Sevens tournaments, I always go to play as best as I can and as hard as I can. If something gets put on the table in front of me, we'll consider it then, but I'm not going there to play for a contract. I'm going to have fun and play some hard, fast sevens."

Harlequins start their JP Morgan Sevens campaign on Saturday against London Wasps, London Irish and Saracens at Allianz Park. If they finish top two in their group, they will progress to the following weekend's finals.

The World Club Sevens starts on August 17, with Harlequins facing an opening round of matches against Australia's ACT Brumbies, Russia's Kuban Krasnador and Auckland of New Zealand.

"We go there wanting to win," Manning said. "You don't go to the World Club championships just to partake and the fact it's in London means it's almost a home tournament for Harlequins. It won't be easy because there are some very attractive sevens teams in there, but sevens is a strange game. Anything can happen."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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