Virtually since William Webb Ellis first scooped up a ball and ran with it, the Pacific Islands have given so much to rugby and got so scandalously little in return. Fiji, Tonga and Samoa bestow upon us heroes and wizardry. Their people teach us lessons in humility and kinship that we easily discard in our affluent western world. But these joyous little archipelagos have long been pillaged by the sharks of the top tier, low-hanging fruit for cowboy agents, and besieged by crooked administrators pocketing what they can and leaving poverty and destruction in their wake.

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Nasi Manu, the hulking Tonga back row, has had enough of this caper. He has decided to stick his head above the parapet and shed light on the risible governance and exploitation of his countrymen. Manu does this not for personal gain, but to share the Tongan struggle with the rugby community in the hope that those who follow are spared the hardship of his peers.

“When we go play for Tonga, we have different worries,” he told RugbyPass. “I don’t just worry about playing my best rugby. Sometimes it’s about, will we have enough kit, will we have enough money? Worries about hotels, food, travel – logistics. These are worries that, as a professional player, you just should not have.

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RugbyPass goes behind the scenes with Tonga as they prepare for the 2019 World Cup in Japan

“I don’t have all the answers, but what I would like is maybe in November, a game against a tier one nation (outside the World Cup, Tonga have had five Tests against tier one teams since 2013 – all away from home). No one ever seems to want to share their ticket sales, but maybe we could get a cut of that. We played the All Blacks in September and the Tongan Rugby Union got money, but we’re not seeing it, it’s not filtering down to the players.

“From what the boys talk about, World Rugby are impatient with Tonga and our board specifically because they have given them plenty of opportunities with funding. And the reason I’m happy to talk about this is because nothing will change if it’s not out there. I feel sorry for the Tongan players and coaches.”

At the World Cup in Japan, Tongan players were paid £300 per game, a mere £12,700 less than their pool counterparts England were reported to earn each fixture (which itself is roughly half what they get during the Six Nations). Frequently, the money did not arrive on time.

Manu will not betray team confidence, but hints strongly that had the leadership group not acted to cool fraying tempers, a mutiny was imminent over the pitiful and tardy match fees. It fuelled an adversarial narrative of players versus board. “I can’t specify what happened but there were talks that if something didn’t change, the players were going to have to do something about it,” Manu explained.

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“We should never be having those conversations as players. I should be focusing on learning my roles that week, doing my homework on opposition. Of course, we want to play for our country and represent our families, but we need to look after those families and we shouldn’t have these burdens.

Manu at RWC 2019

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“It’s really sad. My club Benetton were still paying me, I had security, but we had players who were not professional – one guy is a scaffolder by trade and makes more money scaffolding back in New Zealand than he does playing international rugby. If he’s not getting paid, who is going to pay his rent?

“These young guys are so excited to be at a World Cup at such a young age and they are worrying about providing for their kids back at home. We obviously don’t do it for the pay. We don’t want heaps of money, but more than £300 a week at a World Cup, the pinnacle of the game, and for it to be paid on time.”

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In the months leading up to the tournament, sickening stories emerged from France, allegations that Island players were being financially incentivised – bullied is probably a fairer term – by their clubs to skip the global showpiece. In some cases, it was claimed, Top 14 sides threatened wage cuts if players defied them.

Manu believes these revolting tales are true, despite being a clear breach of World Rugby laws. If they are, it’s a gross affront to the sport that a player should miss pulling on the colours of his country on the grandest stage of all because of the wickedness of his employer.

“At that World Cup, there are so many more players out there that could have played had we had better organisation for Tonga,” he said. “We definitely had a few pull out late because of their priority to get paid by their clubs. Some guys are taking pay cuts from their club, which I know is illegal, but some of those French clubs offer the boys a bit more if they stay.

“Clubs are now being smarter and getting it put in contracts that they have the option to do that if they decide. So we definitely don’t have the best players available playing. That’s all we want – a chance for Tonga to have our best XV. It’s already hard enough with the small population – we just want our best players available for the Tongan team.”

For all of the tumult and anxiety of Japan, the World Cup was a deeply poignant pilgrimage for Manu, a New Zealand-born Super Rugby-winning co-captain with the Highlanders who was widely reckoned unlucky never to become an All Black. His fight against testicular cancer – a battle he won – is well-documented.

Tonga’s opening pool match against England was his first competitive game since being diagnosed in September of 2018. That day, he was supposed to be playing for Benetton in their first Guinness PRO14 fixture of the season against the Dragons. Instead, an Italian doctor, in very broken English, managed to explain that “you have what Lance Armstrong had”.

Those words hit Manu harder than any rival forward ever could. Five hours before kick-off, he was on an operating table having the testicle removed and would undergo four rounds of crippling chemotherapy to rid his body of the disease that had begun spreading to his lymph nodes. In the depths of a nausea-riddled stupor, his daily goal was to lumber from the bed to the sofa, so his infant daughter Nadia could be with her father.

Nasi celebrates Super title

Highlanders co-captains Ben Smith and Nasi Manu celebrate winning the 2015 Super Rugby title win (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“I felt like spewing up the whole time,” he volunteered. “When you’re in the hurt box, it’s like when you go for a run and you’re at that level when you just go numb, the mind is too busy hurting. With how sick I was feeling, I moved from the bed to the couch just to be around Nadia. If I’m going to be really sick, at least I can be in the same room so she can see that I’m okay. My priority was to get back to full health to be a father and a husband. I didn’t even think about rugby.”

The treatment, mercifully, was successful. Buoyed by the tremendous swell of support from across the game, Manu was allowed to train and play again. He dared not dream of fulfilling his boyhood ambition of gracing a World Cup, not even when Tonga coach Toutai Kefu told him he’d made the squad, not until the very moment his name was called on the Sapporo Dome touchline and he was brought off the bench to face the might of the English.

“I felt like I’d forgotten how to prepare. It was probably the worst game day I’ve ever had in however many years of playing and however many big games,” he laughed. “In the morning, I packed my bag about five times, forgot all the little things I usually do. During the warm-up when the crowds were coming in, and I could see England warming up, I was so excited that I literally used up all my energy in the warm-up.

“Every 15 minutes the subs would do a warm-up and I would have done I don’t know how many down-ups, sprints, and by the time I actually came to going on, I was buggered. I had used up nearly all my energy with the emotional rollercoaster.”

With wife Alice and little Nadia in the stands, exaltation arrived and tears cascaded. Manu had come thundering out of the darkness and fear that had enveloped the family. To caress the leather of the rugby ball, feel the iron friction of a barbell in his palms, even to clatter into monstrous Englishmen in the cloying heat of Sapporo was glorious salvation.

“Is it strange to say that I’m glad I went through what I have? It’s made me so much stronger; it’s made me a better person,” he said. “Before, I took so much for granted. Now I’m in the present. I appreciate even just training, I’m happy to go into a gym session, feel the camaraderie, see the boys’ faces. I guess I’m just reminded of how lucky I am to do what I do for a living.

“I’m still a normal human being, I still have days where I really struggle, but I can kick myself out of those funks so much faster these days. The experience just kicked me into a gear where I appreciate so much more and I’m happier for it.”

When Italy’s Covid-19 lockdown is over, his contract with Benetton will be up, and the family will fly home to New Zealand and a murky future. These are brutal times for the free agent, particularly a back row the wrong side of 30 with limited recent minutes and a long gamut of injuries.

Manu longs to keep playing a couple more years, but if not, he can live with that. Sickness has taught him to cherish the here and now. He won’t torture himself with anxiety over what might or might not be coming down the tracks. He still wants to don the scarlet of Tonga too, of course. And wherever he goes, whatever awaits him, he will remain a powerful voice for fairness and equality.

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