The Arkansas State University Men’s Rugby Club has named NeMani “Mani” Delaibatiki as it’s Director of Rugby and Head Coach. Mani hails from New Zealand where he grew up playing both codes of rugby at loose forward and center. He advanced to premier club rugby as a loose forward in the NZ Provinces of Waikato (Fraser Tech) and Southland (Southland Blues) and culminated his overseas’ playing experience with brief stints in Firenze, Italy and in Perth, Australia.
In 2003, the Sckuylkill River Exiles RFC recruited Mani to play Division 1 rugby in Pennsylvania. The move stateside also led to Mani playing rugby for the New Zealand Ambassador’s XV, Belmont Shore, Palmer College, and others. While attending and playing for Palmer in 2006, Mani stepped into the Head Coach’s role and found his niche. The next few years saw Palmer attend several Division 1 National Round of 16 weekends under the direction of Coach Mani. Palmer’s trip to the Division 1 Semifinals in 2010 put Delaibatiki on the map as a coach, though. His charges dropped a nail-biter to Belmont Shore that year and moved on to attend the Semifinals for the next two years, as well.
In 2011, Mani transferred to the Texas Chiropractic College in Houston and began coaching the Bay Area Rugby Club (BARC), a Texas Division II club. His American coaching resume includes representative side positions as Head Coach of the Iowa Collegiate All-Stars in 2009 and 2010 and as an Assistant Coach for the Texas South Selects team in the 2013 Texas Cup Representative Series.
Arkansas State was not the only club courting Delaibatiki’s rugby nous as of late, but the Red Wolves are the team that he deemed “the best fit” for his style of coaching and the rugby vision that drives his passion for the sport. ASU’s Interim Coach Matt Huckaby expressed his approval of the move, “We are excited and we think Mani can put some good energy in the program.”
The soft-spoken Coach Mani afforded us the opportunity to ask him some questions about his new position, his direction for the club, and his ideas about rugby in the U.S.A.
GC: We understand you were being courted to coach and/or direct other rugby programs when the Arkansas State coaching position became vacant. What drove you to seek a position in the college rugby ranks in the US?
Coach Mani: I have always wanted to coach rugby at the grassroots level particularly at the high school and college level. I am quiet passionate about it. The ASU coaching position seems to put me in a great position to do just that. I am excited about the challenge of it all.
GC: What enticed you to accept Arkansas State’s offer?
Coach Mani: The team’s competitive edge and the support of its school administration for the rugby program is quiet unique. It is hard to see that (support) in most large schools where rugby is merely a club sport with no proper school backing. So its nice to see that at Arkansas State.
GC: Based on what you’ve experienced during the interview process, what do you think of the culture at Arkansas State?
Coach Mani: Their culture is awesome. Very friendly people in Jonesboro. I got to meet some school administrators and it is good to see the recognition of rugby within such a big school. Plus, you can just tell from meeting all the guys in the team that they want to do all they can to be competitive. That’s one thing coaches like from all their players – a passion and love for the game and to be the best in what you do. The competitive mindset is already there and that is a plus for me heading in.
GC: The Red Wolves are considered a solid program, They have won a National Championship in 7s, been the runners-up to the National Champions in 7s and in XVs and play in a tough conference. They are already at the top level in US college rugby. What vision do you bring to the program to maintain and improve on those past accolades?
Coach Mani: I definitely have a tough act to follow with past coaches Curt Huckaby, Matt Huckaby and Alex Houser doing a phenomenal job during their stints here at ASU. A lot of credit goes to them for their leadership and building the program up to what it is today. My vision is to maintain the competitive edge and rugby tradition that ASU has built in the past and to build on it by making it bigger and better than what it has been. That means being competitively consistent every year within the college rugby competition. Not that it needs to get better because all the leaders and coaches in the past have done a great job to get it to where it is today. But, like every club, we can always find ways to improve and I am excited about that challenge.
GC: Should we expect any drastic change in the style of rugby at Arkansas State? Or is their current style equal to what you are accustomed to coaching?
Coach Mani: ASU plays a slight similar style to what I will be coaching, but there can be some huge differences into some approaches. I am a player-centered coach – always about the players first – and coach the southern hemisphere style of rugby. However, I am always be open to incorporate my game-plan with the type of athletes presented and what my players can bring to the table. At the end of the day, the best approach has to be what will give us the winning edge and allow us to be competitive.
GC: Finally, not related to this position, what do you like about rugby in the US? Where do you think the greatest opportunities are for the US rugby community? And what can the US rugby community be doing NOW to realize those opportunities in the future?
Coach Mani: USA rugby will one day be a powerhouse in international rugby. But it all depends on the approach we are taking now to get us there sooner. Its not only about having a professional competition, but having the right approach to development of the game toward the future. No doubt, the USA probably possesses the largest melting port of athletes compared to anywhere else in the world, which is always a great resource. But to grow rugby and better the game in the USA, we need to teach the basic fundamentals and principles in essential core skills early, which will allow ruggers to have better decision-making abilities in non-pressure and reality pressure situations. It is critical that we teach that at the grassroots level because it changes the dynamics of the game and the type of rugby players we are putting out which can only spearhead the game here in the USA toward the right direction. Grassroots rugby is where most of the focus should be going, such as high school, youth and college competitions.
Arkansas State’s rugby reputation is hard and fast. The Red Wolves’ 12-10 pool play defeat of the Cal Bears at the 2012 USAR College 7s National Championship tournament was a memorably brilliant match that epitomized their style. With ASU being helmed by a coach of NeMani Delaibatiki’s rugby pedigree, the US college rugby scene can only expect that playing the Red Wolves will be a bit more difficult task. Exciting times, indeed.