Named on the bench for Tonga’s opening match of the tournament, the clash was the 31-year-old’s first game of rugby in 13 months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
The Benetton Treviso star had surgery to remove an abnormal growth last year, before enduring months of chemotherapy in what has been a long stint on the sidelines.
Despite his severe lack of rugby, Manu was named in Tonga’s Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup squads after being given the all-clear to play again earlier this year, but didn’t feature at all in the tournament or his nation’s pre-World Cup fixtures due to a pectoral injury.
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The four-test international completed his remarkable comeback at Sapporo Dome, though, as he was subbed into the game in the 57th minute with his wife and daughter both in the stands to witness his maiden World Cup appearance.
“The whole day has been very difficult for me, just controlling the nerves,” Manu said post-match.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, I just got too excited. I was telling my wife that I didn’t know what to do. I packed my bags five times.
“After five minutes on the field, I felt my legs were gone. No fitness can prepare you for that.
“I don’t know what Toutai [Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu] has planned for me for the rest of the tournament, but the other guys are playing so well.
“I have achieved my dream of playing in a World Cup, whatever happens, and I have so many people I can thank for getting me here. I can’t say names, because I am afraid I will miss some out.”
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This ones for those who have fought or are currently fighting cancer. I hope and pray for your healing and for you all to have as much support and love as I had during my fight. Tonight we lost but you can’t tell because I(we) achieved a childhood dream after a long 13 months. These are the moments I live for. #GodsPlan @alicemanu_ & Nadia ? I love you with all my heart.
Kefu added that Manu’s return to the national side was a source of inspiration for the rest of the squad.
“It’s been an emotional week for Nasi. We tried to lighten his load in terms of media and sponsorship commitments, but we all knew this was important for him.
“I just had a chat with him, and he said he was bloody tired and needs more game time. His lungs were gone, but I reassured him and said, ‘you’re lucky to be on the field’.
“Knowing him, he is a bloody competitive person and a bloody good player.”
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Tonga continue their World Cup campaign on Saturday when they come up against Argentina in Osaka.
With Kefu and his Tonga squad eyeing an unlikely quarter-final berth, the match acts as one the Tongans must win if they’re to secure their place in the World Cup knockout stages for the first time ever.
While they will rank firmly as underdogs for the clash at Hanazono Rugby Stadium, Kefu is quietly confident of his side’s chances.
Here's the player ratings from England's win against Tonga, where one man in particular stood out.https://t.co/B7qWwl9YOv
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 22, 2019
“We didn’t play well against the All Blacks and caught them on a bloody good day, so we just needed to talk about a few things. The good thing is it meant we had to put ourselves under the magnifying glass,” he said.
“Today went much better – we had a gameplan, which we executed. They are a good team, they squeezed us in the first half and we couldn’t get into their 30 to throw any punches.
“We need to keep chipping away at our core skills under pressure. We are getting better, but there are some opportunities we are not taking advantage of.
“We stayed in the game really well, they just got away from us in the second half.”
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