SAPPORO, Japan (AP) — No matter the score, if Nasi Manu gets on the field for Tonga in the Rugby World Cup game against England on Sunday it’ll be a triumph.
In many ways it already is.
The 31-year-old Manu is on the brink of playing his first game at the World Cup, and first since being diagnosed with testicular cancer. He missed all international rugby in 2018 and feared for his life, not just his career, while having to undergo emergency surgery and months of chemotherapy.
“I was given the news at 9.45 a.m., and had surgery at 2 p.m.,” he said.
At times during that grueling chemotherapy last year, Manu was too sick to walk up the steps at a stadium to watch his teammates at Italian club Benetton Treviso, let alone run out onto the field for a rugby test.
But he’s likely to run on for a game again after being selected on the bench for Tonga’s World Cup opener in Japan.
It all struck home for Manu at a World Cup welcoming ceremony for the Tongan team in Sapporo this week.
“I had tears,” he said in an interview for the official Rugby World Cup website. “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.”
Manu’s most inspiring moment, he said, was when he was just strong enough to attend a Benetton game and went to meet his teammates in the dressing room afterward. They had all shaved their hair in support of him through his treatment.
“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 in the dressing room afterwards and that’s a special moment I will always remember.”
During the treatment, his rugby career faded.
“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 said.
Manu took heart from the support of his Benetton teammates, and from former New Zealand flyhalf Aaron Cruden, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 19 and recovered to play 50 tests for the All Blacks.
“He gave me hope,” Manu said of Cruden.
But even after coming through the chemotherapy, Manu’s return for Tonga still had to wait.
He was named as captain for the team’s first game at this year’s Pacific Nations Cup — the stage was set for his emotional return — only for him to tear a chest muscle at a gym session and be ruled out of the tournament.
Surely this time he’ll get on the field at the Sapporo Dome.
“I don’t want to think that far ahead,” he said. “There would probably be more (tears), but I hope not. I need to tackle some big men and crying might come across as a sign of weakness.”
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