"It will be a special moment" - Samson gets set for Saints return after kidney transplant

Samson Ma'asi with his father, Vili
Samson Ma'asi with his father, Vili

"I asked them if there was any other way and I said 'please, I want to keep going'."

That was the immediate reaction of Samson Ma'asi after being hit with the shock news that he needed a kidney transplant that could end his rugby career.

Such is the Saints hooker's love for rugby, he admits the suggestion he may never play again caused him more anxiety than his initial diagnosis of kidney failure.

Ma'asi, who turned 20 on Sunday, eventually saw his fears allayed as his father, Vili, proved to be a successful donor and the operation was done in such a way that it will mean the youngster can take to the field again.

In fact, Ma'asi will soon be back at Saints as he is due to resume training with the club on February 24.

It is a heartwarming tale of a father's love and a son's determination to keep hold of a career he clearly loves.

And thankfully for all involved, the journey, which has been a long one, has delivered the destination Ma'asi was so desperate for after initially being forced to get to grips with his illness in May of last year.

"It kind of started at the back end of last season," explains Ma'asi, who signed his first professional contract to join the Senior Academy ahead of the 2018/19 campaign.

"I was playing my second Premiership game against Worcester (a week after making his debut at Newcastle) and I just felt something in my big toe when we were doing run-throughs.

"I thought it couldn't be right because my dad (Vili was a rugby player for Tonga as well as the likes of Cornish Pirates and London Welsh) had something like gout in the toe and I was thinking it couldn't be that.

"All of a sudden I got tested for it, had a blood test and it came back as severe gout.

"I was wondering what had caused that because normally you get it when you're older, and they wanted to know what caused it.

"It was alright during the game but a couple of days later I was in the gym and the doctor called me to tell me I had severe gout and something wrong with my kidneys.

"It was like two in one for me but I'm quite a positive guy so I didn't turn immediately sad.

"As a young lad it's obviously not what you want to hear, especially halfway through a gym session, but you tend to just get on with it.

"The scary part was just hoping it didn't get worse. I knew I had something wrong with my kidneys but I hoped it wasn't going to get too bad.

"As it turned out as the weeks and months went on, my kidney function was dropping.

"My initial reaction was just 'that sucks'."

But the seriousness of the situation soon started to become clear for Ma'asi and his family.

"I remember going into the hospital with my parents and the doctor just sat me down and asked if I had family history with kidney problems and there wasn't anything," he continued.

"They came back to me and told me I had kidney failure and it was obviously crazy.

"I did start to think the worst just so I didn't jinx it but when they told me it took me a bit of time.

"I didn't cry, it was just a shock hearing it and, man, what can you say to that?

"They didn't tell me there and then that I needed a transplant. I had to stay the night to make sure I was alright.

"It was nearly a month later that I got a letter from Leicester hospital, which is where they do the surgery, saying they wanted me to come in and before that I had a couple of letters from Northampton hospital telling me the kidney function was decreasing slowly.

"It was the first time I head I might need a transplant and I hadn't ever had an operation before that so I was like 'first one's got to be where you don't want it!'.

"I had carried on training every day and I felt good.

"They told me it was chronic kidney failure so it had apparently been happening for ages, but I never felt anything when I was training.

"I played that Premiership game against Worcester and I never felt anything apart from having a sore toe.

"I was supposed to go to the World Cup with England Under-20s and the news came in so I couldn't go.

"I was so ready to go but little did I know."

Thankfully for Ma'asi, he not only had a family member who was a match, but one who was determined to do everything he could to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.

Ma'asi said: "Me and my dad went to Leicester for a lecture on kidney transplants with other people who had the same problem.

"It was hard-hitting and my dad was like 'I need to give you my kidney straight away'.

"My dad was so keen, he was asking when we could get it done.

"My dad went in every day for two weeks doing a bunch of tests and he had to be the proper match. I was very fortunate he was."

Ma'asi admits he was worried if it would affect his father, but he was given no chance to truly question Vili's decision.

"I asked him if he was sure, but he was telling me if I was a dad I'd know what to do," Ma'asi said.

"He was 100 per cent sure he would go through with it.

"I was just so grateful and I felt so blessed he was doing it for me.

"Your dad isn't always a match and when I heard he was, it was just crazy.

"It all happened so fast and he called me to tell me it would be three weeks away.

"I was just doing what I do and when I'm at the club, I'm at home and distracted. I don't think about the fact my kidney's not working."

Such was Ma'asi's resilience, mentally and physically, he went through a full pre-season campaign with Saints and was training up until the week before his transplant took place.

But the club kept a close eye on him, and the player says the support he was given by everyone at Franklin's Gardens has played a key part in his recovery.

"I didn't want to tell them straightaway but when I told them they told me to take my time," Ma'asi said.

"I'm not the kind of person who can stay at home so I came in for pre-season and did it all.

"Fatigue levels crept up on me, energy levels started to drop and it was really hard.

"We have gym in the morning and rugby in the afternoon and the coaches told me to do one or the other, but I wanted to do both.

"Everyone was really supportive, but when you're at work you're not going to show too many emotions.

"They told me they were all here for me and that support kept me going. It sounds cliche, but support during those times is the main thing."

Ma'asi had his operation on November 14.

"I literally trained until that week," he added.

"The operation was on a Thursday so they didn't let me train that week. They wanted me to stay at home and relax.

"It was nothing different for me.

"Even though it happened, I never wanted to stop training.

"I can't keep away because it's something I wanted from a young age."

The passion that comes from the player is palpable.

He has a pure love for his sport, and it is something his family share - as well as the desire to see him return to Saints.

"My family are sick of me being in the house," he said, laughing.

"All of my family want me back playing soon because they know where my mind is at.

"I want a successful rugby career so I just want to get back playing and get on with my life.

"I'm actually going back into training on February 24.

"In the past month, I've been training, doing rugby and stuff like that.

"My transplant was slightly different because they normally do your kidney transplant on the side of your stomach, but because I'm playing rugby, they did it in the middle, under my abdominals so it's more safe and protected.

"It was very rare and they wouldn't normally do that.

"If it was a normal one, they would have probably recommended I couldn't play any more - and that was probably worse for me that being told I had kidney failure.

"I asked them if there was any other way and I said 'please, I want to keep going'.

"They said they could make it happen, it was just a bit more complicated."

Ma'asi has made sure he has done as much exercise as possible and he is almost ready to return to the weights room.

His desire to get back in action has been fuelled by his friends at Saints, so many of whom have gone from strength to strength since the arrival of boss Chris Boyd.

And Ma'asi, who was in the same Academy year as the likes of Ollie Sleightholme, Connor Tupai and Alex Coles, said: "The first season everyone saw what the coach was about, giving young boys opportunities.

"It was crazy to see it all happening with boys I had played alongside at Under-18s playing professional rugby.

"They're my friends so to see them playing in the Premiership and Six Nations is crazy.

"It shows nothing is impossible.

"I love this style of play at Saints.

"I was hoping it wouldn't be around the corner, forwards game and when I first started in the pre-season training I knew it would be good.

"As the season went on, the rugby we were playing was the rugby I love watching and playing myself."

Ma'asi has never been too far away from Saints thanks to the messages exchanged in the group chat.

"I hear from the boys all the time," he said.

"I stay close with the Academy boys because we have our own group chat and they tell me I better not be getting too unfit and stuff like that.

"It means so much to me because even though I'm not at the club, I still get messages and it means a lot and it feels like I'm missed.

"It feels good for them to keep in touch with me and it just keeps you positive, knowing the boys at the club are waiting for you and they care."

When Ma'asi does return, he will delight in the competition provided by the likes of Mike Haywood, Reece Marshall and James Fish.

"I have to fight for my place, but I'm very fortunate to learn from them," he said.

"It's crazy and I'm living the dream.

"I learned so much from Dylan Hartley. He taught me so much in set piece and in life.

"Even now he's gone, there are still experienced hookers there and as a young boy, I'm fortunate to have them there."

The conversation ends with a hopeful glimpse into the future.

It is something Ma'asi hasn't allowed himself to consider until now, but when the subject arises, the prospect elicits nothing but pure joy.

"You saying that, I didn't really think about it, and it's crazy," said Ma'asi, when asked how it will feel when he plays again for the first time with his dad in the stands.

"The first game back, whether for the first team or whatever, and my dad's watching me, it will be a special moment."

Ma'asi has previously represented England Under-20s

Ma'asi has previously represented England Under-20s

It is estimated that there are around a million people in the UK who have kidney disease they don’t know about. And 80 per cent of those on the UK transplant list are waiting for a kidney.

You can take a free online kidney health check here: www.kidneyresearchuk.org/kidneyhealthcheck/

Ma'asi played for Saints against Worcester in May last year

Ma'asi played for Saints against Worcester in May last year