18 Apr 2024

Joey Manu's code switch: A future All Black?

6:52 am on 18 April 2024
NZ Kiwis centre Joseph Manu gets his jersey ripped off during the New Zealand Kiwis  v Toa Samoa.

NZ Kiwis centre Joseph Manu gets his jersey ripped off during the New Zealand Kiwis v Toa Samoa. Photo: Brett Phibbs/Photosport

Analysis - It's funny how things have a way of circling back on themselves. At the start of the 2021 test season, then-All Black coach Ian Foster was asked to comment on a rumour that NZ Rugby had approached Sydney Roosters fullback Joseph Manu. Foster didn't exactly shut it down, noting that they were both from the same town (Tokoroa) and that he would be open to Manu giving it a shot.

Since then, Manu has confirmed that he had been in talks with the Chiefs around about that time. So now, with the news that he will in fact switch codes, Foster is going to end up being Manu's coach after all. Both men will join Toyota Verblitz in the Japanese Rugby League One, a side that currently has Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and last year's World Cup final man of the match Pieter-Steph du Toit on their books.

Foster talked about Manu's signing on SEN Australia, telling hosts Joel Caine and Bryan Fletcher that his former boss Steve Hansen and current Verblitz director of rugby had done "the lion's share" of getting the deal done.

"He (Manu)'s just after a new direction and a new challenge… it takes a bit of courage to change, when you're a star in a sport," Foster said.

"He'll have to take his time to learn, and this is a great environment to do that."

It's hard to argue with Foster on that point. Right now, Japanese rugby would stand as the best way for Manu to get his head around the different pace, skill set and fitness of the fifteen-a-side code. When asked what position Manu would play, Foster simply admitted "I don't know", and then brought up the main comparison that people will immediately be drawn to.

Joseph Manu of the Roosters scores a try.

Joseph Manu of the Roosters scores a try. Photo: J. TYGE O'DONNELL/NRL media

"I've been through this with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in the last few years in the All Blacks. You've got a real quality athlete… we'll have conversations with him through the pre-season. In rugby I'd love to see (Manu) at centre down the track."

It's not a bad shout from Foster, given Manu's physicality and distribution skills. But given the plan was to do the same with Tuivasa-Sheck at second five, let's hope Foster's learned what not to do.

Tuivasa-Sheck came into rugby with a clear goal: to make the All Blacks and win a World Cup. He achieved the first part, albeit in less-than-ideal circumstances in 2021 as a late replacement in a lost cause against Ireland, but by the time the 2023 World Cup campaign rolled around he had fallen out of favour. Of course, Tuivasa-Sheck's now back at the Warriors, ironically playing at centre and certainly not looking out of place there.

Ian Foster (right) and Steve Hansen at the RWC quarterfinal in Tokyo in October.

Ian Foster (right) and Steve Hansen at the RWC quarterfinal in Tokyo in October. Photo: Photosport

So, will Manu end up instead following the pathway that Sonny Bill Williams and Brad Thorn did, from a shock code switch to being crucial members of high achieving All Black sides? At age 27 he's got enough time to make a push before the next World Cup, also he doesn't have the contractual expectation on him that Tuivasa-Sheck did - at least, not yet.

The rumoured plan for Manu is to have him playing Super Rugby, potentially at the Chiefs side he almost ended up joining three years ago. That won't be until 2026, as his contract with the Roosters has him in the NRL till the end of this season, then his time at Verblitz will presumably run all the way up to the test season. So, it is likely he'll end up in the NPC in 2025, which to be fair does makes sense given it's the next logical step from playing in Japan.

Given just how much money is on offer in Japanese rugby, Manu simply staying there is a potential outcome as well.

And that's the key difference between him and Tuivasa-Sheck. This route to a potential All Black jersey makes far more sense than dropping him into a team with huge expectations and playing him out of position.

"It wouldn't be hard for him to cross that bridge," Foster said, referring to Manu's potential return to New Zealand. It will be interesting to see just how far Manu's journey takes him, especially under the tutelage of an old All Black regime.