The Samu Manoa Interview: Part One

I considered headlining this piece ‘The Search for Samu Manoa’ but that would be overstating it.

Sunday, 17th January 2021, 7:00 am
Samu Manoa went from watching Saints take on Gloucester to playing against them on a regular basis in the black, green and gold

In the days of Instagram, no real searching is needed and I optimistically sent Saints’ former American star a direct message last week.

I wasn’t expecting much as I’d always got the impression Manoa wasn’t so keen on the media side of things - he once jokingly borrowed a line from an American football star during an interview, laughing as he said ‘I’m only here so I don’t get fined’.

But Manoa replied - ‘Wsup Tom’ - and it later became clear that the truth wasn’t that he hated the media - it was simply that he preferred to do all of this talking on the pitch.

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And the No.8 certainly did that, becoming one of the most important figures in the history of Saints during his four sensational seasons at Franklin’s Gardens.

But now back in America after stints at Toulon - who paid him mega-money in rugby terms to prise him from Saints - and Cardiff Blues, Manoa agrees to take my call.

And not only does he give an interview, he gives the interview I now consider my most revealing and intriguing during a decade of writing about Saints.

It was so good and provided so much content that, by the time we were about to say our farewells, I jokingly suggested Manoa should do a book.

And, as it turns out, that is something he has ‘been thinking about during the past couple of months’.

It would certainly be worth a read, judging by the hour I spent chatting to the ever-cool customer on the phone from his Seattle home.

In this three-part series, published over the next three weeks, Manoa will discuss life before Saints, during Saints and after Saints.

So sit back and enjoy. I certainly did.

Samu Manoa openly admits that if it wasn’t for rugby, he would probably have ended up in prison.

Yet if it wasn’t for a brush with the law earlier in his life, the likelihood is that he wouldn’t have ever graced Franklin’s Gardens either.

That is because Concord-born Manoa was on a quest to start a career in New Zealand with the all-conquering Crusaders before a court date took him back to America.

He explained: “When I was playing out there in New Zealand, they (the USA law enforcement) were looking for me - they didn’t know I’d left the country.

“So I had to come back and they caught me, otherwise I would have been playing out in New Zealand.

“I was in touch with the Canterbury Crusaders at the time, but I had to come back because I had court. The incident happened before I left for New Zealand and the judge wanted to see me so I came back and did court.

“If I hadn’t come back, I would have got arrested.

“USA caught me and I ended up not going back to New Zealand, I ended up going on tour with the USA rugby team.

“I’m going to tell you like this - if it wasn’t for rugby and if I hadn’t put that pen to paper, for sure my life would be different, you know what I’m saying?

“I would probably be back doing something I shouldn’t be doing so I’m glad I made that choice to go on tour with USA.

“I had left to go to New Zealand because I was hot with USA - I was tired of doing USA camps and not getting selected to play.

“I did so many camps since 2007/2008, a lot of selection camps, and a lot of playing for USA A and not actually playing for the national team.

“I got kind of tired of it because I knew in myself that I was better than the people who were playing in my position but it was all political.”

But when Manoa did finally get selected for the national team, it opened a door he couldn’t have envisaged.

While on tour with the USA in 2011, he played for the Eagles against Saracens in London.

Watching on was Saints’ then recruitment and development manager, Dusty Hare.

Manoa said: “OG Dust, man - he came and saw me when we were on a European tour with USA.

“We played Saracens on a field in London, in the middle of the city, in between buildings.

“Dusty came and saw me and that was the first time I met Saracens and I was giving it to them from day one!”

Hare liked what he saw and Saints soon got in touch...

Manoa explained: “We’d just finished tour, I just flew back and my agent that I went fully onboard with, my boy Nick, he met me at the airport when we flew back to America.

“We had an agent with USA but I was seeing all the deals he was giving all the players and they were s*** deals so I had two agents working at the same time to see who could pull in the money.

“I got back to the States on a Tuesday from Georgia and then Dusty wanted me to fly back out on a Thursday, two days later, and I flew back out.

“The Saints were playing Gloucester that weekend and I got to watch the game.

“We had dinner at Soane Tonga’uiha’s house and he kind of talked me into coming to play with him because he said he was the only Polynesian player on the team, the only Tongan.

“I was like ‘I’m gonna run it, I’m gonna go for it’.”

With Manoa, who was playing for San Francisco Golden Gate at the time, not due to fly back to America until the Sunday, Saints gave him a seat in the stands to watch the game against Gloucester, on Saturday, February 26, 2011.

“The rugby was good and it was all about the experience, sitting in the stands, seeing the whole crowd going wild in the stadium because I’d never experienced that,” said Manoa, who was one of more than 13,000 people watching on at Franklin’s Gardens.

“Even when we played our national games, it was never packed, especially with the teams we played against.

“The only packed game I played in for the USA at the time was the Georgia game and it was the biggest crowd I’d played in front of so when I came to see the Gloucester game it was just a different experience, to see the fans interact with the players, the chants, all that stuff, it opened my eyes up and I was like ‘I want to play in front of people like this’.

“The Saints lost that day and Shieldsy (Saints’ team manager at the time, Paul Shields) tried to cover up that loss and tell me ‘we’re still a good team’.

“I flew back home on the Sunday morning and then Jim (Mallinder) and Shieldsy and Dorian West were contacting me at the time through my agent to see if I wanted to sign because they were ready to put me onboard.

“The only thing was me talking to my wife because it’s a big move leaving the country.

“I had just had my third child at that time, they were four, two and one-year-old when I went to Saints.

“When we first came out there we stayed with Soane for the first few weeks because my contract at the time was a lot of money to me, but in the scheme of things it wasn’t - it was like a beginner’s contract.

“My agent told me to sign it for now and he said he already knew they’d want to sign me again if I balled out so we could go after some more money.

“And within a few months, I signed a new three-year contract.

“I’m glad I signed with the Saints - that’s where the journey started for me.”

But signing for Saints came at a cost for Manoa, who agreed not to go to the 2011 World Cup with the USA as part of the deal.

“I came in because Saints were looking for cover during the World Cup and that’s why I opted out of the World Cup in 2011,” he said.

“I was supposed to go with the USA but I was like ‘man, I’m going to go where the money is’.

“It was part of the deal that if I signed for Saints, I wouldn’t go to the World Cup because I was covering for Courtney (Lawes).

“I said I’d stay and not go to the World Cup and at that time, USA threw me under the bus like I’d got this contract and just turned my back on them.

“Eddie O’Sullivan was the coach at the time and he kind of threw me under the bus in the media saying he didn’t know I wasn’t going to the World Cup.

“I was like ‘man, that’s the reason why I didn’t do the Churchill Cup’ because the USA had a game at Northampton at the Gardens and he told me not to worry about that game and just to get ready to start running with the Saints and he told me he’d take care of everything else.

“Then the World Cup came and he pulled that move on me and I told them I was out - that was why I didn’t play for the USA for a couple of years.”

Manoa had more than enough on his plate, moving himself, his wife and his three children at the time - he now has seven - to a new country many hours away from his home in California.

He officially joined Saints in the summer of 2011 and many would have wondered what he would make of his new club’s notorious pre-season training.

Head of strength and conditioning at the time, Nick Johnston, was widely known to push his players to their limits to get them in the best possible shape for the new campaign.

But Manoa, who had combined working as a concrete layer with playing rugby during his time at San Francisco Golden Gate, took it all in his stride and gave as good as he got from Johnston.

“It was easy, it’s just the training I wasn’t used to, the pre-seasons and stuff like that,” said Manoa, when asked how he found the settling in process at Saints.

“I had to get used to the pre-season and waking up every morning just going to do rugby and not waking up and going to bust concrete.

“It was easier for me to switch up from doing concrete to doing rugby.

“I used to tell the boys every morning, I’d ask them ‘what’s up, man - how’s your day?’ and they’d be like ‘it’s okay, Samu - it’s a s****y day today’ and they’d ask me how I was and I’d say ‘it’s another day in paradise, man’.

“I used to tell the boys that every day, they know what’s up, (Stephen) Myler, Dyls (Dylan Hartley) - I used to tell them it’s just another day in paradise.

“I was loving it, I loved waking up just to go train.

“I loved it, maybe not the fitness but you know what I mean.

“I got stuck into Nick (Johnston) - he knew what was up.

“He was tough and he tried to pull that tough s*** on my and tried to scare me, but he didn’t scare s***.

“At the end, he ended up doing what I told him. He’d tell me to jump on a watt bike and I’d tell him ‘I ain’t jumping on no watt bike, I’m just going to turn my legs over’.

In fact, the only thing Manoa didn’t find easy at Saints was getting the other players to understand how he spoke, and getting to training...

“The only thing that was hard was trying to get to know the boys because I only really knew Soane,” Manoa said.

“I didn’t really get to know the boys until the second week of my pre-season. The boys would say wsup but I didn’t really get to know anybody.

“When I finally got my flat I lived over in Kingsthorpe by Myler and them but I didn’t know Myler, Brett Sharman and Daisy (Christian Day) were all living in one area and I used to run to training every morning because I had no car at the time and I didn’t know anybody.

“One time I woke up late, training was at 7.30am, I woke up just after 7am and it took me about 45 minutes to run to training at the Gardens.

“That morning, I grabbed my stuff and just ran all the way and I got there five minutes late and walked straight into the meeting.

“Jim was like ‘why are you late?’ and I told him ‘I ain’t got no ride, I had to run here’.

“He asked me where from and I told him it was Kingsthorpe and then the boys were like ‘we all live over there’ and they could have driven me to training.”

But it wouldn’t take long for Manoa to become a big part of the crew at Saints, and a key part of the squad’s bid for glory.