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‘I won’t miss the weather’: Manu Tuilagi bids farewell to England
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‘I won’t miss the weather’: Manu Tuilagi bids farewell to England

Manu Tuilagi arrived in the United Kingdom for what he initially believed was a short break to visit his brothers but now, 20 years later and with more than a whiff of a northern twang in his voice, that extended holiday in this part of the world is finally drawing to a close.

When Tuilagi’s parents returned to Samoa, a 12-year-old Manu opted to remain with his siblings. The boy who walked through the door at Rumney RFC to fill time while his brother Freddie was playing for the then Cardiff Blues, leaves the UK as one of the greats of English rugby over the past decade and more. It has been some journey, one with high and low points plus a moment or two of controversy to boot.

The 32-year-old will take centre stage on Friday night for his final home match in English rugby, as Sale take on, perhaps fittingly, the club with whom the Tuilagi family are synonymous, Leicester. Tuilagi’s rugby odyssey will continue with Bayonne in France next year but it feels as if this is the end of an era.

“It’s quite emotional to know that this will be the last home game at Sale,” he admits. “I’ve loved it here. When I look back now I just think: wow. It’s been some journey. What are the odds of my last game here being against Leicester? It makes it even more special to play against the club that I’ve been at for so long.”

Two decades on Tuilagi remembers how it all began. “I had never been on so many planes,” he says with a smile. “There were long flights, lots of walking then, when we got here, it was in the winter so it was freezing, but I loved it. I thought we’d just come here for a holiday. Mum and Dad went back, but me and my brother Vae stayed here: and over-stayed for a long time. I actually didn’t know, until I nearly got deported. It’s been a good life.”

As Tuilagi recalls, one of the defining moments in his career came in 2010, when he was set to be deported after it emerged he arrived on a holiday visa six years earlier and had remained in the country illegally. A successful appeal granted him indefinite leave to remain in the UK and within a year he had earned his first England cap.

Tuilagi accepts he has had his fair share of rocky moments; throw in the infamous “bunny ears” prank on David Cameron in 2013 and the ferry jump after England’s catastrophic 2011 World Cup in New Zealand among others. “I’ll think, ah, you idiot, Manu, why did you do that? But you’ve done it, so that’s life. It’s in the past. It’s there for ever, so there’s no point beating yourself up about it really.”

Manu Tuilagi scores for EnglandView image in fullscreen

Sixty caps for England later, after a number of comebacks, he knows that his time at international level is now effectively over with his switch to Bayonne. Has he made peace with that? “That’s life, man,” he says. “You always want to get what you want, but the big man has different plans. I’m actually excited to watch, especially after the way we ended the Six Nations.”

His England career may be finished, but would he consider putting his hand up for Samoa at the next World Cup in 2027 if the call came from the country of his birth? “I’ll be too old, mate,” he laughs. “Yeah, I’ll be too old. I’ll be 45 by then – on my real passport anyway!”

For now he will be watching on from his new life in France and perhaps unsurprisingly, for someone as laidback as Tuilagi, he is yet to visit Bayonne. “My brother is about three hours away,” he says of the former Perpignan player Henry. “I think that will be quite nice. To be able to see him a bit more is good but it will be a nice place, it will be a good experience not just for me but for my family.

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“It’ll be something different, something new, which is exciting. I think that the unknown is probably the best thing about it, I don’t know what it will be like when I go there, play there and live there. It think it will be different, so I’m looking forward to it.”

The odds are against Tuilagi’s time in England finishing in another Premiership final. Sale were beaten at Twickenham by Saracens last year but to make the top four next month they need to win their remaining two fixtures and hope other results go their way. Whatever the outcome, he will look back on his time in the north in a positive manner.

“I love the north. I can’t believe I’ve been here for four years. I definitely won’t miss the weather, that’s for sure. But I’ll miss the people. The time we’ve spent together will be good to look back and think of all those memories. I’m going to miss it here.”

He has at least learned one thing from his mistakes: his visa application for life in France is already lodged. But how does he hope he will be remembered? “It’s irrelevant for me, really. What matters is how my family remember me, for who I am. I’m just a guy that plays a bit of rugby now and then.”

Source: theguardian.com