Former Saints second coming reaping divine rewards for Quins

After eight years in league, Maurie Fa'asavalu is back in union and is proving a big hit with his London club. Chris Hewett hears his story
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Leaving aside the obvious – Martin Johnson's hoisting of the Webb Ellis Trophy towards the Sydney night sky; the tournament-winning drop goal by Jonny Whatsisname; the sight of John Howard, the prime minister of a beaten Australia, throwing medals at victorious Englishmen as though he were chucking darts at a photograph of his political arch-rival – the 2003 World Cup produced more than its share of unforgettable moments.

Two of them were provided by Samoa: Semo Sititi's great try against the eventual champions in Melbourne and Brian Lima's eye-watering tackle on the Springbok outside-half Derick Hougaard in Brisbane. Hougaard plays for Saracens these days, but is currently injured. Put it down to the aftershock.

The thing no one remembers is that Maurie Fa'asavalu played an important role in both of these wondrous occurrences. "If you look at the tape, you'll see me giving Semo the scoring pass," he says, quietly but proudly. "And I remember everything about the tackle, because I was standing very close. The South African scrum-half tried to make a break, but I was in a good position to shut him down. He saw me coming, lobbed a pass to the player outside him and Brian flattened him." Has he ever witnessed a harder hit? Fa'asavalu chuckles softly as he considers his reply. "Let's put it this way," he says, finally. "The guy didn't get up for a while."

Over the last few weeks, Fa'asavalu has been watering a few eyes on behalf of Harlequins, by way of proving that it is possible for a union man to spend the best years of his career playing league – a game in which flankers do not exist – without compromising his instinctive grasp of back-row fundamentals in the 15-man code. Eight years ago, as a young seven-a-side specialist with the grand total of three international caps to his name, he performed so jaw-droppingly well throughout his country's four-match World Cup campaign that connoisseurs thought they were watching the new Pat Lam, the next Apollo Perelini or another Junior Paramore - or maybe all three, rolled into one.

What they were actually watching was a man who would be lost to the sport within weeks of the tournament's end. "Back then, I was still playing my rugby in Apia, where I was born," Fa'asavalu recalls. "I loved it there, but as there was no chance of a professional contract in the islands, I went to the World Cup knowing that this was my window, my chance of exposure. After the tournament I had a chat with Biarritz, but even though they said they were interested, nothing happened. The people who seemed really keen were St Helens, but apart from the odd game at school, I had no experience of league. I wasn't too sure about it, so I asked them to hang on a bit.

"I went off to Dubai with the Samoa sevens team and thought no more of it. One day, I returned to my hotel room to find seven messages from the St Helens guy, asking what was going on. I hadn't even given him my number! He'd rung my parents back home, and they'd told him to phone the offices of the Samoan union. That was how he found me. From that moment, I felt wanted. I didn't have an agent, but there was a lawyer in New Zealand who was helping me out. I told them to send him the contract, and I signed just before Christmas."

Fa'asavalu spent eight years with St Helens, who ran him as a prop. The first 12 months were difficult – "I was lost; I just didn't get it," he admits – but when the Australian coach Daniel Anderson arrived in 2005, things changed. "Daniel said to me: 'If you agree to stay here, I'll teach you to play,'" he continues. "That was the deal he offered, and I put my faith in him. From then on, I started to achieve. We won everything there was to win in 2006 and reached the Super League final every year after that." Fa'asavalu was picked for Great Britain against New Zealand in 2007, scoring a try within five minutes of taking the field, and won three caps for England.

So what happened? Why return to union now, as a thirtysomething with an awful lot of hard league miles on the body clock? "Right through my league career, I always watched union whenever I could," he responds. "There came a point at the end of the last season when I took out my medals, put them on the table and said to myself: 'They're all from league. I have nothing to show for my days in union.' I thought it would be good to give the old game another go, just to see what might happen."

Enter Conor O'Shea, the Harlequins rugby director, who signed Fa'asavalu last July, while the Samoan was recovering from shoulder surgery. It may prove the cleverest piece of business conducted by any Premiership club since the Londoners lured the All Black outside-half Nick Evans away from New Zealand three years ago. Certainly, the Samoan's recent performances, especially in the Amlin Challenge Cup, have been monstrously effective. If the hard men of Munster, beaten in the semi-final of that competition before the disbelieving eyes of their own supporters in Limerick, ever see Fa'asavalu again, it will be several centuries too soon.

"I was attracted to Harlequins because they like to move the ball and play a fast game," says the flanker, who, worryingly for Saracens, is every bit as motivated for this afternoon's final regular-season Premiership game at the Stoop as he was for last weekend's raid on Thomond Park. "My days in league made me more confident because it made me stronger: if you're soft, there's no way you can play that game. But I still like to play my union the way I did back in 2003. I was a lot younger then, but this feels as new to me.

"When you experience something like last week's occasion, you can't wait for the next match. I'd watched enough union during my time at St Helens to know all about Munster's reputation, about how hard it was meant to be to win over there, but we prepared very specifically and put our plans into effect from the first whistle, which was satisfying. The place was a sea of red, but every now and again I could see patches of Harlequins colours in the crowd. And at the end, of course, our supporters stayed in the ground when everyone else was leaving. To see only Harlequins shirts at a place like Thomond Park – that's the kind of thing you remember all your life."

All of which leads to the key question: will Fa'asavalu play a full season for the Londoners next term, or will he commit to a second tour of World Cup duty with Samoa, eight years after his first? The islanders are not exactly bereft in the back-row department – the combination of Ofisa Treviranus, Manaia Salavea and George Stowers gave England all the trouble they could handle as recently as last November – but it would take a very brave coach to ignore the claim of the new Harlequins folk hero, assuming he decides to stake one.

"Even though I played league for England, the rules say I can still play union for Samoa," he confirms. "At the moment, I'm not sure what the situation is. The Samoan officials came over three or four weeks ago and talked with the people at Quins, but I haven't been given any details. While my main commitment is to the club, it's always a privilege to play for your country. This is a new situation for me. If everyone agrees and the selectors want me, I would love to play at another World Cup. There again, I may not be picked. The coach is naming his squad early next month, so we'll have to wait and see."

It would be an unexpected bonus to see him in New Zealand in September, taking on the Wallabies and the Welsh – not to mention his South Seas cousins from Fiji. "It's a tough pool," he says with a soft smile. "Just like 2003." Agreed. And look what happened then.