France’s Posolo Tuilagi could take on his uncle and former babysitter Manu in Le Crunch

Manu Tuilagi (left) and Posolo

Amid the house plants in a quiet corner of a bustling Grantham café, Fereti Tuilagi recites his family tree. It is not a straightforward task and it takes almost as long as the interview that follows. The 52-year-old “Freddie”, donning his Samoan necklace – an ‘Ulafala – is the eldest of seven brothers, six of whom were or are international rugby players. Each of them has children, and the next eldest, Henry, has seven. The food bill does not bear thinking about.

Since Freddie’s 2000 arrival in Leicester, the Tuilagi name has grown into one of global rugby’s most revered and most frightening. The family is known the world over as a bunch of uncompromising, hard-hitting juggernauts – be that at club level, their native Samoa, or their newfound homes of England and France.

This weekend, those two adopted nations will scrap for a likely second-place finish in the Six Nations, in what is now a Tuilagi derby of sorts. One of Henry’s seven children, 19-year-old Posolo, made his France debut in this year’s Six Nations at lock and Manu, the youngest of the original seven brothers, has 59 caps for England at centre. Owing to illness and selection there is a chance that neither will feature this weekend, but their presence around the matchday squads does bring a new slant to the meaning of ‘Le Crunch’.

Posol Tuilagi - France's Posolo Tuilagi could take on his uncle and former babysitter Manu in Le Crunch
Posolo has become a star at Perpignan, earning him a a call up to the French national side - Getty Images/Johnny Fidelin

It all started with Freddie, at a time when the Tuilagi name was only associated with the crunching three-quarter who, after representing Samoa in the 1991 and 1995 World Cups, left union to pursue the professionalism of league.

“Just after the 1995 World Cup, I switched to rugby league which at the time was a professional sport,” Freddie, who now runs a gin distillery and coaching courses, tells Telegraph Sport. “To be paid for playing a sport… I thought trying out rugby league would be good. I’d never played but I felt like it suited my game: plenty of contact, physical. All my brothers were still at school at this point! Henry, Alex, Andy… all at school in the village in Samoa.

“My dad was about to retire and my mum was looking after the kids, so I was providing for the family; sending money back to pay for the boys’ school fees. I got a contract at Halifax.

“After Halifax, I played two years for St Helens. Five years in rugby league. At the end of the 1999-00 season, after the grand final, I was looking to come back to union. I chatted with Sale but Bristol, with Bob Dwyer, was more likely. I was invited down by Bob to watch Bristol play Leicester – in Bristol. That year, Leicester were about 20 points clear at the top of the table, pre-play-offs.

“I had a look round and Dean Richards was Leicester director of rugby. I remember a young Lewis Moody scoring a couple of tries in that game. I told Dean that I was going to sign for Bristol and he asked to meet for a coffee. I was still living in Halifax, so Dean and Peter Wheeler [then Leicester chief executive] came up to meet me and I decided to sign. After the grand final with St Helen’s, I came to Leicester.”

The chain reaction of Richards and Wheeler’s journey to a hotel at junction 24 of the M62, to sign Freddie, is enormous. Within a year or two, five Tuilagis were playing at Leicester. In total, eight players with the Tuilagi surname have run out for the home side at Welford Road, with Freddie’s two sons, Brian and Fred, beginning their careers with Leicester. Down in Perpignan, the town in the south of France where Henry planted his flag after leaving Leicester, Posolo – nicknamed ‘Moto’ by Freddie after the word ‘Mototoa’ for a Samoan chief – is one of the club’s stars – but there is more to come. Posolo’s 15-year-old brother, Jean-Lucas, is part of the Perpignan academy – and he happens to already weigh 130kgs.

Former Samoan professional rugby footballer Fereti (Freddie) Tuilagi poses for a portrait
Freddie Tuilagi was capped 17 times for Samoa - Darren Staples for The Telegraph

Henry was the first to follow Freddie to Leicester, alongside the fourth eldest, Alesana, or “Alex”. The latter had a short stint terrorising Leicester’s youth prospects in the academy before returning to Samoa due to the expiration of his visa. Alesana would return to the Tigers in 2004 and win three Premiership titles in an eight-year period on the wing.

But Henry’s arrival at Welford Road was slightly more fortuitous. The No 8 left Parma and, after a car accident, was heading back to Samoa. Freddie told his brother to stop in Leicester on his way back, speaking to Richards about a potential contract. The director of rugby said, with Martin Corry, Neil Back, Lewis Moody, Paul Gustard, Will Johnson and Adam Balding competing for back-row places, that there was no room in the squad for Henry, but that would soon change. Freddie asked Richards if Henry would be welcome to use the gym before his return to Samoa – and the rest is history. Henry’s arrival at Welford Road just happened to coincide with Alesana’s insertion into the academy, too.

“When the two brothers turned up, we were completely beside ourselves with worry, seeing the size of them,” Richards tells Telegraph Sport. “Alex was going to train with the academy!

“Henry was just enormous. I’d never seen him before and he was just a giant. This guy went into the gym and the weights that he was lifting... he was putting everyone to shame. The props wanted me to ask him to leave because they said he was embarrassing them.”

Freddie adds: “Half of the Leicester team were called up to England and I remember one afternoon, for a contact session on Wednesday – very tough – we didn’t have enough numbers so Dean asked Henry to come along. We were playing Cardiff away that weekend, around 2002. Henry trained with the team and he just smacked everyone. After the Cardiff game, Henry played, and Dean said: ‘Here’s your contract.’”

After Henry, Anitelea (Andy), Vavae and then Manu, the youngest, all followed in Freddie’s footsteps to Leicester, with all but Manu representing Samoa. A seventh sibling, Olotuli – or Julie – has never played professional rugby, instead adopting fa’afafine, or ‘third gender’ in Samoan culture. Julie remained in Samoa but the brothers all departed.

“Manu arrived here when he was 12,” says Freddie. “I looked around for a local club for him and we settled on Hinckley. He was rubbish when he first started! Because there was hardly any proper training – or proper balls, equipment – in Samoa. Boys would just be in a small field in a village, having a pass around, full contact. Even then, there were no age groups. A 12-year-old could play against a 20-year-old! No referee. As long as you had seven, 10 aside, age didn’t matter. If you were a young lad wanting to play against the big boys, you could, but you just weren’t allowed to cry! ‘Ok, you can come and play – but don’t cry’. That was the sort of rugby they played back home. So when the boys came here their skills just weren’t there. It took Hinckley a couple of years to teach Manu the game.

I remember when Manu was 18, he was the strongest in the whole Leicester squad - including the first-team players. But every evening, at a park near to the house in Leicester, I took the boys down there to do hill training.

“All the boys worked so hard at their rugby and Leicester gave them an opportunity. And they played well and took it with both hands.”

The Tuilagis owe a debt of gratitude to Leicester, but one is owed to Samoa, too. Raised by mother Aliitasi Sua Tuilagi and father Leo Vavae Tuilagi, who passed away two years ago, Freddie holds nothing but the most cherished memories of his native island, almost 10,000 miles away in the middle of the Pacific.

“We were so lucky to have grown up in Samoa,” he says. “It’s such a sociable place. Everything happens outside, too. As long as you did your chores after school – fed the pigs, collected coconuts – then you were allowed to go out and climb trees and swim in the sea. We loved that. We had the best time.

“We didn’t go away on holiday. In the UK, you save to go on holiday. In Samoa, you didn’t need to, because every day was a holiday.

Former Samoan professional rugby footballer Fereti (Freddie) Tuilagi poses for a portrait during a Charles Richardson interview in Grantham
Samoa is a sociable place, Freddie Tuilagi says - Darren Staples for The Telegraph

“Mum gave us a hiding every now and again if we went swimming in the sea straight after school and didn’t come home until dinner.

“My mum is tough. My dad was soft with us but mum is a very tough lady. Rightly so! It must have been quite hard with seven boys running around.”

Now it is over to the next generation of Tuilagis to blaze a trail, among whom is Frenchman Posolo. At 6’4” and 149kg, ‘Moto’ dwarfs uncle Freddie – perversely, with his balloon biceps, one of the smaller members of the family – but it was not always so.

“Moto was tiny, a very small kid,” Freddie says. “But he loved hanging out with all the cousins. One time in Leicester, me, Henry, and Alesana all lived close by and it was like we had a small village!

“He runs just like Henry, straight up, just like his dad. He’s big for a second row but he can carry himself around. He’s in the best place, that professional environment, around the French team, to look after his weight and make sure he’s in the right shape. International rugby is a tough place to be but from what I’ve seen so far he can more than hold his own. It’s not just ‘bosh bosh’, either. He has soft hands.

Manu and Posolo - France's Posolo Tuilagi could take on his uncle and former babysitter Manu in Le Crunch
Young Manu holds nephew Posolo

“It would be special if it were Moto against Manu this weekend – Manu babysat all the kids! If you were the youngest in our household, you did all the chores. You made the teas and the coffees, took the bins out, looked after the kids. There’s that nice picture of Manu holding Posolo at a Christmas do. It would be something special, nephew and uncle going against each other, if it happened.

“When Moto played his first game for France, against Ireland in Marseille, we all went and Manu brought our mum over. Not every day you play your debut. It was a big family day out for us. A proud moment for all of us, but especially Henry. He’s more like a Frenchman now! All of his kids are fluent in French. They speak English, French, Samoan…”

To finish, I ask Freddie the burning question: which brother was the strongest and which would he least like to tackle? He sips his cappuccino and deliberates. He cannot choose. “Henry was so strong,” he says, before adding: “It didn’t matter, we’d always still try to smack each other.

“We’d always have a go – and then have a laugh about it.”

To most, such a scene would be no laughing matter, but Freddie’s response is yet another example of how and why the Tuilagis became rugby’s most fearsome dynasty.

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