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Home away from home

The Guardian
Saturday, December 22, 2012

The surprises keep rolling from Manu Tuilagi. Just a few weeks after he helped propel England to a shock victory over New Zealand at Twickenham, while producing some deft skills to complement his familiar rampaging power, Tuilagi offers some equally unexpected revelations in person.

On a cold day at Leicester's barren training ground the conversation is underpinned by the twin themes of family and toughness which provide the bedrock to Tuilagi's life.

As he discusses each of his six brothers in turn, reiterating their brute strength and sheer warmth, Tuilagi returns to Olotuli, the second eldest of seven boys, to make a wider point about diversity.

"Mate, they're tougher than us," Tuilagi says with a little laugh. "Olotuli is a fa'afafine — and I promise you there's no-one tougher in Samoa than a fa'afafine. You don't want to mess with a fa'afafine. They act and look like girls but they're real tough. No one will mock them because a fa'afafine won't take it."

Tuilagi shrugs in bemused admiration for his brother and the fa'afafine. But he shakes his head when asked if the word transvestite is also used in his native Samoa.

"I don't know. But it's been going on for a long time in Samoa. And even now there is a big community of fa'afafine. Olotuli is a fa'afafine. That means he dresses as a woman. They wear make-up and everything else a woman wears. You know they even wear bras with stuffing inside. But none of them ever want fake boobs."

The muscled 21-year-old nods when asked if he means that a fa'afafine would not become a transsexual and change his gender through hormonal treatment and surgery.

"They don't do that." But would a fa'afafine like Olotuli live with a man in a permanent relationship? "Yeah, I'd say so," Tuilagi says. "Probably."

Tuilagi's face lights up when asked if Olotuli is just as big and imposing as all his brothers. "He is. If he'd ever played rugby he would have been a great backrow forward ..."

Tuilagi has already explained the deep religious belief of his Catholic family. Are his devout parents relaxed about the fa'afafine? "They're all right now. It's been there a long time and people are used to it."

It might be harder to be a transvestite in Leicester than a fa'afafine in Samoa — and yet Tuilagi has noticed many more differences in a largely secular society.

"My mum and dad always ring and tell me to go to church. But it's weird for me because I haven't been to church for a little while. Back home everyone goes to church and they don't do anything else on a Sunday. Your body and your mind knows it's a Sunday. But, here, Sunday feels like any other day. It's strange but I've got used to it now. But when I score a try I look up to the sky and do the cross sign and hold my hands . It's just me thanking God for everything — and remembering my belief and who I am."

Tuilagi uncovered his true rugby self against the All Blacks this month. From the moment he faced the haka to the second-half burst when he was involved in England's stunning hat-trick of tries in a scarcely credible eight minutes, Tuilagi placed himself at the heart of Twickenham.

"It was a very special day. The All Blacks are the world champions and the team we watched as kids. And I loved accepting the haka as a challenge they threw down. I was looking at it, taking it all in, thinking 'I can't wait.' It's like you're going to war. But I was ready. England were ready."

England were markedly different compared to their muddled defeats the previous two weeks, against Australia and South Africa. "It was frustrating to have had two losses because we could've won both games. But we turned it into a motivation for New Zealand. That was the best thing about us. We kept the belief."

The real test for England occurred when their 15-0 lead was shredded to a single point as the All Blacks responded early in the second-half with two converted tries. "We got in a huddle and Chris Robshaw said: 'Just keep the faith. We're still leading.' We needed to get back in the game straight away. And we did — we scored three tries and the adrenaline kept us going."

A slick and pacy exchange between Tuilagi and Brad Barritt, after the latter had exploded through a gap, produced a dazzling try and a sharp retort to all those who had derided England's centres as a cumbersome.

Tuilagi was even more impressive when, a few minutes later, he brushed aside Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, rugby's two most celebrated players, to set up Chris Ashton for his swallow dive over the line. "It was the old Ash-Splash," Tuilagi grins, "because he was very happy. He hadn't scored for a while."

Tuilagi received a five-match ban in 2011 for punching Ashton brutally in a club match between Leicester and Northampton.

That was one of the mishaps that characterised Tuilagi's early career — epitomised by his confessed "stupid" leap off a ferry in Auckland after a hapless England had been knocked out of last year's World Cup. But he dismisses the former Australia coach Eddie Jones' assertion that he was disrespectful to the All Blacks when, having intercepted a desperate New Zealand move, he chose to walk over the line to score. "I was too tired, mate. I just wanted to stop running and get the ball down."

Having played most of his career on the wing, he is convinced that he has now found his perfect position. "You get a lot more space at 13. I've found my place."

Tuilagi could have lost his way as a teenager in England, after he arrived on a tourist visa and was immersed in an alien culture.

"I came here nine years ago this month," he says in his throaty voice. "I was 12 and couldn't believe it. There was snow on the ground. It was cold but nice. Scary, too. I couldn't speak much English. I could understand a bit because we did English lessons in Samoa. But one lesson a day was not enough to talk in English."

Initially, he lived with five of his brothers in a Leicester suburb called Thorpe Astley. Only Olotuli, as a fa'afafine, remained at home with their father, a retired politician, and his mother, a former shopkeeper in the small village of Fatausi-Fogapoa. Tuilagi's brother, Alesana, "knew the dad of Ryan Bowers and asked him to keep an eye on me. We've been best friends ever since and that's how I met Ryan — or Bowser as we call him: Bowse Lightyear."

Tuilagi, impressed by his wit, almost falls off his chair. "We were in the same class at Mount Grace. I was shy, just like now, but Ryan was real nice."

Rugby also helped. "I only knew the word for one position so when the coach asked me where I played I just said 'winger'. That's where I ended up — on the wing. I remember my first game playing under-14s for Hinckley and I couldn't believe these kids were my age. I was quite small then — and chubby."

A tubby Tuilagi was also startled to be playing with a proper rugby ball. "In Samoa we usually played with a piece of wood or a plastic bottle filled with grass. You'd just throw it around."

The cold rain of Leicester was almost less of a shock than the feel of a new rugby ball. "I couldn't believe it. The only ball I had as a kid had no grip on it. It was my ball but everyone came round to my house to use it. It got used so much it had no colour and no grip on it. It was just white."

In 2009, Tuilagi came close to being deported from England because he had turned a holiday visit into a self-appointed permanent stay. It seems as if he was oblivious to this country's immigration laws.

"I wasn't worried," Tuilagi says, recalling his initial response to likely deportation. "I just thought about rugby. I loved playing so much, nothing else came in my head. It only hit me at the very end. It was the week of my first-ever game for Leicester, against South Africa."

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