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Manu Tuilagi: I was 13 when I came for a holiday – now I am waving goodbye to a great England career

Manu Tuilagi

Even now, Manu Tuilagi remembers the smell of his first British winter. Then 13, he was visiting his brother Freddie, then playing for Cardiff, on holiday from Samoa where the concept of winter does not really exist and snow was a figment of the imagination.

“It was crazy,” Tuilagi said. “I had never been in so many planes. There were long flights… walking… then when we got here, it was in the winter so it was freezing, but I loved it. It’s weird, but I still remember the smell of winter. I remember it snowed, I ran out in no shoes and my mum nearly gave me a hiding. But yeah, it was an amazing experience.”

After 20 years that holiday is finally coming to an end as Tuilagi prepares to play his final home game in English rugby for Sale Sharks against his former club Leicester Tigers on Friday night. Along the way, he has nearly been deported for outstaying his initial holiday visa, won 60 Test caps for England, suffered countless injuries, made the bunny ears sign behind the Prime Minister and jumped off an Auckland ferry.

Tuilagi gives Cameron 'bunny ears'
Tuilagi had some fun at David Cameron's expense after the Lions tour in 2013 - REUTERS/Chris Harris

“To be fair, I thought we’d just come here for a holiday,” Tuilagi said. “Mum and dad went back, but me and my brother Vae stayed here, and overstayed, for a long time. It’s mental. I actually didn’t know, until I nearly got deported. It’s been a good life.

“Sometimes you look back and you think how? But that is the great thing about life, you never know what is going to happen. That is why I don’t plan anything. My wife hates that, I’d be like: ‘Nah, don’t worry.’ At least she is there to plan everything for us. I’d have no idea, I’ve just enjoyed it.”

The ‘don’t plan anything’ vibe extends to not even visiting Bayonne, the French club that he has signed for next season. “It will be something different, something new which is exciting,” Tuilagi said. “I think that the unknown is probably the best thing about it, I don’t know what it will be like when I go there, play there and live there.”

First, the 32-year-old wants to sign off at Sale Sharks by helping them reach the play-offs, sitting two points behind fourth-place Bristol with two matches left to play. “I think from the last six games, we had to really go after it and win every game or we’d be out of the competition,” Tuilagi said. “It’ll be no different this week.

“We had a meeting this morning, it’s quite emotional to know that this will be the last home game at Sale. I’ve loved it here. Four years has gone so quickly, it feels like I just came here yesterday, that’s how much I’ve enjoyed it. What are the odds of my last game here being against Leicester? It’s special.”

Tuilagi brothers
Manu, left, at the age of 15, with brothers Henry, Anitelea, Vae, Freddie and Alesana - Robert Hallam/REX

Tuilagi has made his peace at having played his final match for England in this year’s Six Nations against France. For more than a decade, Tuilagi has been the centrepiece of the English midfield. His rampaging performance against the All Blacks in 2012 has remained fixed in the minds of successive England head coaches. For better or worse, he has been the most influential English player of his generation. Now that chapter has closed, but Tuilagi believes that Bath’s Ollie Lawrence is more than ready to inherit his mantle.

“I think he’s a complete player, in terms of the attributes he has,” Tuilagi said. “He’s got the physicality, good skills, he can play a bit as well, and he’s a good lad, which I think is important. I think he’ll be huge for England for a long time.

“I’m actually excited to watch [England], especially the way we ended the Six Nations. It felt like everything came together, so I’m so excited to watch the boys go in Japan and going to New Zealand as well. That’s the best time, after the Six Nations.”

Manu Tuilagi
Tuilagi scores during England's victory over holders New Zealand in the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final - REUTERS/Issei Kato

Asked for his personal England highlight, Tuilagi does not select that breakout performance in 2012 against New Zealand, nor the 2019 try against the same opponents, but a 13-minute appearance off the bench against Australia having been absent for more than two years with a succession of groin issues. “I’d been out for a long time, I think I got on for the last 10 or 15 minutes,” Tuilagi said. “ It took a long time, I came back three or four times and got injured again. So when I finally played and didn’t get injured in that game, I was like: ‘Thank God.’”

Tuilagi also discounts the notion that he could switch allegiances to Samoa for the 2027 World Cup on the basis that he was too old. Then again, he gave much the same reason for not being involved last year. “I did to be fair. I remember that.” On the whole, Tuilagi does not have much time for reflection with three children running rings around him.

It is his family that has been one of his main driving forces that have powered him through multiple bouts of rehabilitation. The other is simply his love of the game, which manifests itself in his trademark smile. “You work so hard during the week, why would you not enjoy it?” Tuilagi said. “I love the game, there’s so much to it, as players we have the opportunity to have a theory, then you can go out there and make it come to life. The game, there’s so much to it. I still learn every day.”

Asked how he thinks he will be remembered, Tuilagi seems nonplussed by the notion of leaving a legacy behind. “It’s irrelevant for me. What matters is how my family remember me, for who I am. I’m just a guy that plays a bit of rugby now and then.”

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