Tuigamala under high command

RUGBY LEAGUE CHALLENGE CUP FINAL: Wigan's Western Samoan former All Black is set to grace Wembley and terrorise Leeds with his irresistible surges from the centre. Ken Jones met him
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A frightening thing about Va'aiga Tuigamala is the personal conviction that he has only just begun to play. "I haven't shown all I can do," he said this week. "Just bits and pieces." From a man whose extraordinary surges have been a stirring feature of Wigan's remorseless progression to yet another Challenge Cup final that is quite a statement.

It was early in the afternoon and we were sitting at a table in the boardroom at Central Park. There was the buzz of further activity in the Antipodean tussle for television control of rugby league but Tuigamala was a picture of contentment, demolishing quickly a small mountain of carbohydrates.

By any standards Tuigamala is a powerful man with a body shape reminiscent of Mike Tyson before the former world heavyweight champion was diminished physically by three years in prison but, at 5ft 101/2in, heavier by almost two stones with thighs like church buttresses. A large head sits on sloping slabs of muscle that stretched the seams of a green sports shirt. But arrestingly gentle. Warm brown eyes. A devout Christian. "God put me on the earth to set an example," he said.

It is how Tuigamala rationalises his faith with participation in an essentially violent game. "Christianity is not as strong as it should be," he added. "Society is on a downturn. People need better answers than they are getting."

Some evangelist. "Inga is an awesome physical presence," said Wigan's assistant coach, Joe Lydon. "He's got this remarkable ability to take the tackler with him as though adding to the force of his own momentum. It's something I haven't see in any other player. And his speed off the mark is devastating. I'm glad I don't have to go up against him."

Delicate hands too. "That's been an outstanding feature of his progress," said a former Warrington and Aberavon hero, Mike Nicholas, who manages the Welsh rugby league team. "Some of the things Inga does are nothing short of sensational."

A joke circulating is that Tuigamala's peers would vote him player of the year ahead of Dennis Betts if they knew how to spell his name. He has been that good, that consistent, improving all the time, at last coming to terms with the problems that confront all converts from rugby union, often proving beyond them.

At first, in common with many who have switched codes, Tuigamala struggled. He remains approximately the same weight, around 17st, but now it is more evenly distributed. Putting it bluntly, people recall that he looked fat, out of condition, even slobbish. Once or twice, disturbingly, he threw the ball into the crowd. Sceptics shook their heads. Thirty-nine appearances as an All Black wing was no guarantee that Tuigamala would make it as a centre in rugby league, the position in which Wigan felt they could get the best out of him.

Wigan's patience was important. "They gave me time," Tuigamala said. Time in which he came decisively under the influence of their fitness coach, Chris Butler, who set him to a gruelling programme of hill runs and weight training. By the start of this season, Tuigamala knew that he was there. "I was ready for the challenge God put before me," he said.

The Almighty figures frequently in Tuigamala's conversation. He says it was to God that he turned when the offer to join Wigan first presented itself. "I had to be sure that it was what the Big Fella wanted me to do," he said. "I'd never given a thought to playing rugby league and I was proud to be representing my country."

Also, Wigan's offer set Tuigamala thinking about the chance his parents took when they left Western Samoa for a new life in New Zealand. One of 13 brothers and sisters, he said, "They were trying to make a better life for their family. I didn't have anything to complain about. I had a job in marketing and I enjoyed my rugby. I was totally focused, but here was the sort of opportunity that doesn't come very often."

In Tuigamala's mind success is superficial. All that matters, he says, is the guts to take up a challenge. Speaking of the brilliant All Black full-back John Gallagher, who failed to make an impact in rugby league, he said: "I've got the utmost respect for John. Things didn't work out for him but the important thing is that he took it on, therefore he wasn't a failure. I think it is essential to test yourself against the best. To put yourself on the line, to take the initiative. It took me a while to make up my mind but once I was sure that God approved I went for it. He wants me to be competitive, to show that I'm enjoying my game. If people gain something from that it adds to my happiness."

This week, guarding against the threat of defections, Wigan tied up Tuigamala for a further three years. Here with his wife, two children and brother, he did not have to think twice about it. "The big thing is that we're happy," he said. "This is a tremendous club and I'm grateful for the support I've been given."

The future holds no doubts for Tuigamala. Confident of further expanding qualities that see him established at 25 as one of rugby league's most conspicuously talented figures, he said, "I'm still on a learning curve. For a while I shut my mouth, but now I feel I can do things the way I want to do them."

Tuigamala did not say it as a boast. He never says anything as a boast, but just as a matter of fact, and always honestly. Perhaps that is the most fearsome thing about him.

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