Even my dad told me that thumping Chris was wrong
Rising England star Manu Tuilagi reveals the fallout from that punch
The former speaker of the Samoan parliament had spoken over the phone in grave tones. "I am disappointed," Tuilagi Vavae had said, with the added gravitas of a high chief of the tiny village on the tiny Pacific Island that has produced a remarkable rugby dynasty. "Doing what you did is a waste of time."
Manu Tuilagi's normally open and smiling face turns serious as he relates this conversation about the punches that held up but did not halt his plans of playing for England. "My father was not happy," says the young centre, and you know immediately that whatever Martin Johnson may have said about the notorious assault on Chris Ashton last May, Manu's dad had done the job of chastisement for him.
The plain facts of the then 19-year-old Tuilagi's left-left-right combination when he squared up to Ashton in the Leicester-Northampton Premiership semi-final were that he was given a five-week suspension and missed the final and the Churchill Cup, but was picked anyway by Johnson, the England manager, for the World Cup training squad.
That 45-man group, which also includes Ashton, is currently in camp in Surrey, building towards three August friendlies before the tournament kicks off in September. Having turned 20 the week afterthe retaliatory attack that sent slow-motion footage of Ashton's juddering temple around the world, Tuilagi hopes to make his England debut against Wales at Twickenhamon 6 August.
Only that and the return match in Cardiff a week later remain before Johnson announces his final squad of 30 to go to New Zealand. "It's a massive challenge for me," says Tuilagi, who has made 27 club appearances and played twice for the England Saxons, "but that's what life is all about. Challenge yourself and take it head on."
He was christened as Manusamoa – the name the Samoan rugby team goes by – in honour of his eldest brother, Freddie, making the Islanders' 1991 World Cup squad. There are six rugby-playing siblings in all, each having had Leicester connections, and the third, Alesana, scored a clattering try in Samoa's stunning 32-23 win over Australia in Sydney last week. But Manu, the youngest, was set on representing England soon after he arrived here from Fatausi at the age of 13.
Having played soccer at school back at home, he learnt his rugby at John Cleveland College. A hitch with his visa notwithstanding, Manu trod the age-group path wearing England white, not Samoan blue. "I'm really proud of where I was born. Also I'm really proud of where I am right now. Mum and dad, they're really happy for me. I guess they're amazed. I'm amazed myself."
Johnson and England know what they are getting. Alesana was once sent off for Samoa at Twickenham for a dangerous tackle and fighting with Lewis Moody, now the England captain. Henry, brother No 2, had a 50-day ban last year for a ludicrous late and high "hit" in a French club match. Manu weighs 110kg – the same as Wladimir Klitschko. "Everyone knows I was in the wrong [over the Ashton incident]," he says. "I'm just focusing on what's now... trying to get into the World Cup." Has he ever belted anybody like that before? Tuilagi chuckles and metaphorically bobs and weaves. "Huh huh, erm, no." But it was a fairly capable punch? "Ah, it was just the heat of the moment."
Julian White, the Leicester prop and veteran of the red mist, is said to have jokingly chided him for letting his feet leave the ground while throwing the punch. Johnson, according to Tuilagi, has not cautioned him one to one. Publicly, the manager said last month: "You don't need silly bans. We thought what Manu had done in the league and with the Saxons was worthy of him coming in."
So a more pertinent video clip to enjoy is of Tuilagi's try against Saracens last March. Taking a pass in a wide channel, he shifts his feet with a tip-toed dance. Ramrod hand-offs and a thrash of the neck take him clear of two players. And Alex Goode, the Saracens full-back, is splattered by the full-on body barge familiar from Freddie, Henry and the rest. It is a set of skills not matched by any of Manu's outside-centre rivals, Mike Tindall, Matt Banahan and James Simpson-Daniel, in a thin area for England. It might just get him to New Zealand.
Manu was never homesick: the excitement of seeing snow for the first time – "I ran outside without shoes, it was absolutely freezing" – and his brothers' company sustained him; so too his Catholic faith. "For us, going to church is to thank God for what he has done for us, day by day. We pray forgiveness and to be able to perform the talent that he's given us."
With Alesana away, Manu is in charge of their Leicester house. "It's good, just me," he says. "Chill out and nothing to worry about."
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