England’s World Cup opener against Tonga on Sunday will be a special occasion for all involved, with several players from both sides making their debut in the competition. Eddie Jones’ men are heavy favourites heading into the contest, but one Tongan has overcome the odds just to make it to the tournament.
Sunday will mark the return to international rugby for Nasi Manu, just 11 months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. For Manu and his family this is a game that they could only have dreamt of in October 2018, when he received the earth-shattering diagnosis.
“I just wanted to know if I’d be able to have more kids and be a good father to the one I had,” he told the official Rugby World Cup website.
“I was preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. I was given the news at 9.45am and had surgery at 2 p.m.”
Yet less than a year on from that surgery to remove an abnormal growth and the following chemotherapy, he has been named on the bench for the World Cup opener against England. As the Tongan squad were presented caps by Brett Gosper, chief executive officer of World Rugby, he could not hide his emotion.
"I had tears just then. I don’t think anybody knows just how much I have been through to get here. Not only the surgery and chemotherapy but also the physical battle to get myself in good enough shape.”
One of the most touching moments of Manu’s recovery came as all of his Benetton Rugby teammates shaved their heads in solidarity with him, ahead of their European Challenge Cup game against Harlequins.
"I was at a pretty low point when I was sent the clip of shaved heads. When I was able to attend a game I was still pretty sick. I went into the dressing room afterwards and that’s a special moment I will always remember. Especially as they had won in the last minute.”
This comeback is actually Manu’s second attempt at playing for his country since chemotherapy. He was named as Tonga’s captain for the Pacific Nations Cup last month but unfortunately, disaster struck just days before the first game.
"I was so proud and excited to be named captain for our first match in the Pacific Nations Cup and then two days before it I tore a pectoral muscle in the gym so I couldn’t play."
As the 31-year-old looks into the stands on Sunday afternoon, he will see his wife and two-year-old daughter watching on. That family unit was constantly on his mind during his recovery as his rugby faded into insignificance. But, after beating cancer, Manu was able to get his career back on track with his family at the forefront of everything he does.
Whether he makes it onto the pitch or not on Sunday, and no matter the result, his wife and child are a constant reminder that Manu is already one of life’s winner.