Giant hitter's gentle touch

Hugh Godwin discovers that Newcastle's fearsome centre is serene off the pitch
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The Independent Online
BRIAN CLOUGH used to prepare his team for big matches by whizzing them off to Majorca. Chelsea's Sixties swingers would hang out at a Lancashire health hydro en route to Anfield or Old Trafford. Each to his own, and Va'aiga Tuigamala sees no reason to abandon his Monday night bible studies just because it is cup final week.

"My wife Daphne and I have a home bible study group," says Tuigamala, the Samoan whose five tries in the Tetley's Bitter Cup this season have swept Newcastle to Twickenham. "It carries on from what we learn at church on Sunday. We've got about 25 members, we're very laid back and open-minded, and a cup final makes no difference. It's one way of relaxing, really, because people can get nervous or up-tight about a one-off game. If ever I do that I just get on the guitar with my boys Jordan and Savaise and chill out with a few songs."

Tuigamala, one of 14 children, was four years old when his parents left Samoa for Auckland. They were staunch Methodists and their Christian beliefs have been central to their son's outlook on life, a life of rich success and high acclaim in both codes of rugby. After winning 19 caps for the All Blacks, "Inga the winger" switched codes in 1994 and was transformed by Wigan's renowned training methods into one of rugby league's most potent centres.

In September 1996 he was loaned to Wasps for four months, then it was on to Newcastle in the game's first pounds 1m transfer. The next season Newcastle won the league, and now here they are in the cup final. As one of Tuigamala's favourite biblical sayings has it, opportunity knocks only once. He believes in seizing the day.

Against Richmond an injury to Jonny Wilkinson brought Tuigamala off the wing and into the centre, where the 29-year-old's awesome power and frightening pace were uncontainable.

Now Rob Andrew is out with a dislocated shoulder and again fate, it seems, is thrusting Tuigamala centre stage. "It doesn't worry me where I play," he says. "Centre is very static, but at least you're closer to the action. Deep down in my own self, I know I'm blessed with a particular talent and it's my responsibility to go out and fulfil it to the best of my potential."

Tuigamala has worn the blue jersey of Samoa since choosing them over New Zealand for the rugby league World Cup in 1995 and, in the union version this autumn, Samoa will be in Wales's World Cup pool.

The Wales coach Graham Henry will need no introduction to Inga, having coached him through the age groups at Auckland. "We first met around 1984," says Henry. "He was a student at the school I was principal of, Kelston Boys' High School in Auckland. He was a quiet boy, and rugby was the thing he thrived at.

"I think his move to England was the best thing that ever happened to him. He has matured into a fine and worldly wise man and his physical presence on the field means he will always be a major player. But the one thing you can say when he puts in the big tackles is that there isn't a hint of malice."

It is a fascinating observation. How does this outwardly calm and collected creature, twice a Challenge Cup final winner with Wigan at Wembley, summon the rage to destroy attackers and scatter defenders?

"It's a very natural part of the Polynesian's game," says Inga. "It's a gift to be able to enjoy being hit, not only to give it, but also to take it. We have a pride thing in the islands - if you get smashed, the way to respect that is to get up and walk away.

"I do relish the opportunity to put one over my own opposition. But it serves no purpose to throw your fists around, although I'm tempted a lot of the time, if only out of frustration."

Tuigamala's third child, Salote, arrived during his spell at Wasps. The children attend Pentecostal services; Inga went to a Baptist church as a boy, because his parents wanted him to learn English. "My dad died when I was 10, but he left a standard for us to strive for. He worked hard so that we wouldn't end up in the position that he was and I'm sure that's the wish of every parent. I wanted to provide for my children and, although I'm not one to dwell on it, there has been a lot of hard work behind the scenes that people don't always see."

Tuigamala and the Wasps captain Mark Weedon also go back a long way. As teenagers, they won New Zealand wrestling titles at their respective weights - heavyweight and super-heavyweight. "The only reason I won my final," says Inga, "was that I was fighting a guy who was blind in one eye. I just kept on the right side of him." Pity the Wasp who has to keep the mighty Inga the wrong side of the try-line.

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