Manu Tuilagi wins his 50th cap on Saturday with Richard Cockerill revealing how close it came to being for Samoa rather than England.
Having missed twice as many Tests as he has played due to injury, Sale’s wrecking ball centre has taken 11 years to finally reach his half century. He would not even have got off the mark but for Cockerill, then boss of Leicester, the Rugby Football Union and three Leicestershire MPs going into bat for him in 2009.
“He was bowling people over at 17 and I knew then he was going to be a special talent,” said the now assistant England coach. “Then I found out he didn’t have a visa and might have to go home. That was a slight issue.”
Tuilagi had followed his five older brothers to Britain at the age of 13, massively overstayed his six-month holiday visa and been faced with deportation. “For a month I was just waiting for the police to knock on my door and arrest me,” he admitted.
Left out of age-group England sides for fear that he would not be allowed back into the country, Cockerill took his case to the RFU. “From there we got good backing from the government,” he said. “But for that Manu would have been playing for Samoa.”
Granted indefinite leave to remain, Tuilagi wasted no time in making the most of his opportunity. Capped at 19, he made his World Cup debut a few weeks later. It has not been all sweetness and light. He let himself down jumping off a ferry into Auckland harbour during that tournament and missed the next World Cup due to a conviction for assault.
“We always said that we’d look after him,” said Cockerill. “But there were plenty of times he got himself into trouble and I’d say: ‘Mate, any chance of you behaving yourself?’ The Manu of back then - so raw, so aggressive - would not recognise the player he has become. From all that life has shown him he now has a good perspective on what’s going on.”
Owen Farrell admits playing alongside a talent “any team in the world would appreciate” is inspiring.
“There is no-one who loves playing rugby more,” said the England captain. "Sometimes I look to the side and he’s got a smile on his face next to me. It reminds me that it’s a game we love playing and this is why you do it.
“My favourite memory would be how he was during the haka in 2012. Just smiling. He couldn’t wait. He saw the challenge and thought, ‘yep, I accept it’. We all know what he did after that.”
The memory of the last time the pair played together against South Africa, in the 2019 World Cup final, is less heartwarming. “We didn’t give the best of ourselves on the biggest stage,” Farrell recalled. “That memory comes back round sometimes. Hopefully we can use it in a good way.”