The making of the Manu
October 12, 2012
Manu Tuilagi is one of the key components of the Stuart Lancaster England era © Puma
This time last year, Manu Tuilagi was throwing himself off a ferry in Auckland harbour - an incident which compounded the misery surrounding England's infamous 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign.
It led then England coach Martin Johnson to label him "irresponsible". But fast-forward 12 months and Tuilagi has grown as an individual - both physically and mentally - and has been touted as a potential British & Irish Lion.
It has been a remarkable transformation and there is a clear parallel between the Manu metamorphosis and the change in fortunes of the national side under Stuart Lancaster - it's been a case of boys turning into men.
Despite being 21-years-old and having just 13 Test caps to his name, Tuilagi is viewed as one of the more internationally experienced players of the Lancaster era. There are those whose caps fall near the half-century bracket - such as Toby Flood, Dylan Hartley and Tom Palmer - but the greatest indication of the change that has transpired for England is the fact that the current skipper Chris Robshaw has fewer caps than Tuilagi.
Ever since his debut for the Leicester Tigers, when he shone against the Springboks back in 2009 - something Manu labels as "one of the best, most notable days of my career" - you could be forgiven for believing that his feet have never touched the ground. But Tuilagi's a modest, quietly spoken individual - someone who appears shy when speaking to the media - and the demands of his current life is a far cry from his humble upbringing.
"It was a case of playing rugby every day at school, after school and in the evening," Tuilagi told ESPN. "It was and still is my life. It was all I ever wanted to do.
"We played in front of houses or any big spaces, any fields. Most of the time we played on our primary school rugby pitch. I used to play barefoot and sometimes we played with a stick or a plastic bottle filled with grass and pretended that was a ball - it was all very different to Leicester."
While the rugby environment has changed, the Tuilagi family values have not. One of six rugby playing brothers, at Leicester Manu has always been Alesana's younger rugby playing brother, or 'one of the Tuilagis'. But that looks like changing. He is now the sole Tuilagi left at the club, with the much-admired Alesana now turning out in Japan, Andy at the Dragons, Henry over in France at Perpignan and Vavae in the PROD2 for Narbonne.
While Manu is now writing scripts of his own out of the shadow of his famous brothers, he admits it will be a tough transition etching out his own path:
"For me I always felt proud to be their brother. I just wanted to be like them. Growing up they inspire me so much so all I wanted to do was train, train, train and get better. They always said just work hard and you don't get anything easy or free. You have to work for it and you have to sacrifice yourself to the game. They always keep saying that to me now and my brothers are always there for me. What I've got now is more than I've ever wanted.
"My brother Alesana is a massive guy and people loved him. I remember just growing up and watching the Tigers play and whenever he got the ball, everyone got to their feet and started screaming hoping he'd score a try. He's a massive inspiration for me and he'll always be there for more years to come."
Manu has shown no obvious ill-effects of being the last Tuilagi standing at the Tigers and, alongside Jonathan Joseph, he appears to be playing the best rugby of the England centres. Manu and the rest of the Tuilagis usually return back to Samoa in the summer for a family reunion but he may have to postpone this trip. His current form will have no doubt attracted the eye of British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland.
He's one of the few England players mentioned in the same breath as the majority of the Welsh and Irish contingent for a spot on the plane to Australia come next summer. His boss at the Tigers, Richard Cockerill, has tipped him to become the best outside centre in the world and Manu has his sights set on representing the historic side - although he is remaining grounded in the meantime and focused on managing the expectation.
'A rugby player was all I ever wanted to be' © Getty Images
"For me, as usual, I take it game by game, I focus on the now. You're only as good as your last game and for me I try and focus on that. I focus on playing for Leicester and come the internationals, hopefully I'll be fit and available for selection for England. It's a massive year looking ahead to the Lions tour and for me it's my dream. It's a dream for every rugby player in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland to play for that incredible side. It's probably the highest level that you can play.
"But there are a lot of things that have happened over the last year - I've had some injuries. And yeah, it's hard sometimes with the expectation; you have to be good all the time. You can't have one bad game or two so I'll just focus on the next match."
If picked, it will be Manu's first trip back to the Antipodes in a rugby capacity since the World Cup. He will hope to make history for all the right reasons, with the Lions chasing their first win Down Under since 1989. If he makes the cut then he will become the first Islander to turn out for the historic side. Despite the magnitude of this, you can bet that the softly-spoken but physically intimidating man will bring a slice of Islander culture to the side in more ways than one with his very own recipe for success.
"I still like cooking Samoan food and my favourite is chicken soup and kale which I have for every pre-match meal. You basically chop up the chickens, boil it, add all the gingers, garlic and onion. You then add tomatoes, celery, potatoes and some carrot - it tastes amazing."
Manu Tuilagi wears the PUMA King Finale. For more information go to puma.com/rugby
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.