When Samu Manoa’s mother last saw him, she decided that the 19st-plus Northampton forward was looking a little on the skinny side. “Are they feeding you over there in England?” she asked him. “Give me the coach’s number. I’ll call him.”
Manoa is not obviously in need of building up – his brutal performances for the Midlanders in this season’s Premiership have earned him a reputation as the competition’s most physically intimidating individual – but mums know best. Especially Tongan mums.
Born and raised in California, the one-cap USA international hails from an eye-wateringly large extended South Seas family – he says his mother is “one of 33 brothers and sisters, although she’s never met half of them”, which makes his father’s nine-sibling arrangement look lamentably half-hearted by comparison .
He was pretty much made for contact sport of one kind or another. His grandfather was captain of Tonga in the 1960s, his father also played for the international side, and one of his brothers is on an American Football scholarship at Stanford University and might be drafted into the pro game if he lives up to early expectations.
“I thought about Gridiron myself for a while,” Manoa revealed this week. “Before rugby, I played defensive end… and linebacker, and quarterback, and wide receiver. But I like rugby, which is the same game without pads.
“I like running the ball and I like hitting people. I don’t mean to hurt them, but hey, if you’re in front of me, I’ll give you what I’ve got. And I’m not scared of any player. If I get bumped, I get bumped.”
Northampton signed him from the Golden Gate club in San Francisco, where he was playing for free while earning a living laying concrete and electrical cables.
“They invited me over and were really good to me, so when they asked me to sign I said, ‘Where’s the piece of paper?’
He says he is “blessed” to be here. You can see his point. During his time on the West Coast, gang culture and turf wars were not a complete mystery to him.
“That was the neighbourhood, and I was young and dumb,” he admits. “I needed to get out of there. Some guys I knew are doing good now, but there’s other guys who are still playing the fool.”
One of Manoa’s pet projects is establishing a rugby academy back home. Together with the Golden Gate coach Bruce Thomas, one of American union’s most dedicated movers and shakers, he believes organised sport offers kids from tough backgrounds a way off the street.
Manoa is 28 now and has some catching up to do, not least on the international front. He missed the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand – he had just agreed terms with Northampton, and the USA coach at the time, Eddie O’Sullivan, was not of a mind to put the player’s professional future at risk by forcing the issue. As a consequence, he has yet to add to his single appearance for the USA national team, the Eagles, against Georgia in November 2010.
But things are moving fast. After today’s Premiership final business against the Leicester Tigers, he will join up with the Barbarians squad and is all but certain to face the British and Irish Lions in Hong Kong next weekend, alongside such celebrated players as the All Black wing Joe Rokocoko, the French half-back Dimitri Yachvili and the wondrous Italian No 8 Sergio Parisse. “That’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that adds to the exposure for American rugby.”
It should work out very nicely for Manoa too – just as long as the Baa-Baas remember to feed him. If they don’t, they’ll have a row on their hands.