The Samu Manoa Interview: Part Two

During his four seasons as a Saint, Samu Manoa went from fighting with fans online to feeding from their chants at Franklin’s Gardens.

By Tom Vickers
Sunday, 24th January 2021, 7:00 am
Samu Manoa (centre) with Salesi Ma'afu and Courtney Lawes after Saints claimed Premiership glory in May 2014
Samu Manoa (centre) with Salesi Ma'afu and Courtney Lawes after Saints claimed Premiership glory in May 2014

The American ace, who shone as a lock and a No.8 after making the move from San Francisco Golden Gate in 2011, became an iconic figure in the black, green and gold.

From laying concrete in California, he started to lay the smackdown on a regular basis at Saints.

But he admits it took him a little while to get used to the approach of the supporters who eventually took him to their hearts.

“My four years at the Saints have got to be the best four years of my rugby career,” Manoa says warmly, speaking from his Seattle home.

“The boys when I first moved out there welcomed me.

“It was a slow start and when the boys knew I was going to leave the Saints they were like ‘man, Samu, the first time you came and we met you, we didn’t understand a word you say’.

“I had to switch up my whole talk and everything because Shieldsy (Saints’ team manager at the time, Paul Shields) even talked to me and said ‘Samu, you can’t be tweeting that you’re going to beat the fans’ a*** because you’ll get in trouble’.

“I was like ‘my bad’ because I wasn’t used to that.

“When the fans were talking s*** about the players, I was like ‘why are you all talking s*** and what’s the point of y’all coming to the game then?’.

“The fans were talking some s*** online and I started talking s*** back and we had a whole meeting about that and everybody looked at me like, ‘Samu, you can’t be doing that’.

“They were talking hella s*** online and saying things like ‘if that was me, I’d have saved that try, I would have tackled them’.

“And I was like ‘come on, we train Monday through Friday, come out there and run the ball, come out there and try to tackle one of us - stop being an internet gangster and come out there on the field’.”

Needless to say, no supporters took Manoa up on his offer to try to tackle him.

In fact, most opposition players avoided him if they could manage to as he showed his qualities as a sensational ball carrier and incredibly big-hitter during his time at Saints.

His performances were so good that supporters even invented a chant for him, to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.

‘Ohhhhhh Samu Manoa’ would regularly ring around the Gardens and away grounds on matchdays.

And Manoa says that helped him take his game to new levels.

“The first time I heard that, (Stephen) Myler came into the locker room and he was like ‘hey, Samu, did you know they’ve got a song for you?’,” Manoa said.

“He was like ‘bro, they were singing ‘ohhhhhh Samu Manoa’ out there, I was like ‘nah, you bull********’ and then right before the next game when I came out before kick-off it was coming from the Tetley’s Stand.

“I was like ‘man, they’ve got a chant for me’ and at that time for me personally it felt like that was when I’d made it.

“The whole stadium was chanting my name and that just made me play even better.

“For sure, it made me feel at home. Northampton is always going to be home.”

Manoa was a huge figure in helping Saints to set the tone on the field.

I once nicknamed him and Courtney Lawes ‘The Bruise Brothers’ because they inflicted such pain on opposition players.

And the pair clearly struck up a close bond at Saints, even enjoying a personal battle during matches.

“That’s my brother, man,” said Manoa, when the name of Lawes is mentioned.

“When I started playing with Courts and I knew what kind of player he was, I knew it had to be us two who had to set the tone for the boys on defence.

“In the game, I’d be looking for hits and everyone’s looking for that one big hit to lift everybody.

“When I saw how Courts was smacking people, I thought ‘for sure, I’m going to start smacking people’.

“I turned it into a game that year, I was always doing that to make everyone have more fun while we were playing.

“Me and Courts were playing for whatever we wanted from McDonald’s after the game. Whoever lost had to buy the other person’s food, that’s what me and Courts were doing every time we were playing. It was whoever could get the most big hits in a game.

“We’d come back in the locker room and we’d be check it off, being like ‘two for me, three for Courts’. We’d go back and forth.

“If I lost, I was like ‘Courts, what do you want to eat, man?’.”

Lawes and Manoa became a formidable and fearsome duo on the field, and great friends off it.

And they took a particular liking for Saracens as the rivalry between Saints and the men from the capital grew season on season.

“I loved playing against Saracens,” Manoa said.

“You know why, because to me I didn’t like it. For me personally, I was like ‘everyone thinks Saracens are the s***, but these guys aren’t the s***’.

“I was like ‘I can’t wait to play them. They talked so much about those guys but it seemed like they were all just rich boys.

“I was watching the highlights of their games and they were pretty boys and I was like, ‘these guys need to get smacked’.

“Every time I was playing Saracens, I was like, ‘I need to humble these guys real quick, I’m going to give it to them’.”

And Manoa did, quickly becoming the Saracens slayer for Saints as they turned the tide in the rivalry.

Saints regularly started to get the upper hand against the team who had beaten them in the 2010 Premiership play-off semi-final at Franklin’s Gardens.

The black, green and gold went to Allianz Park as huge underdogs in the play-off semi-final of 2013 and returned home with a sensational upset.

The likes of Lawes, Manoa, Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati led the way with their physicality on that day.

And it propelled Saints into a final with their traditional foes, Leicester Tigers at Twickenham.

But after skipper Dylan Hartley was sent off just before half-time, hopes of claiming Saints’ first Premiership title faded.

However, it had helped to fuel the fire sufficiently as Jim Mallinder led his men to glory in the following year, securing both the Premiership crown and the European Challenge Cup during a memorable season.

Manoa’s incredible impact was recognised as he was named Saints’ supporters’ player of the year for 2013/14 and was also nominated for the Premiership’s player of the year prize.

And he said: “The year before when we lost in the final with Dyls being red carded, when we lost that and we were in the locker room, we knew we had to do it next year, we had to win it the next year. It was the dopest feeling ever. We came out ready the season after, we were ready to win.

“There weren’t too many new players who came in and Jim (Mallinder) and the whole coaching staff knew what they had to do to get us right to win that year.

“It was so smooth that year.

“Everyone’s mindset went from strictly business to having more fun and we ended up doing a lot more stuff with the team than the year before.

“We did a lot of social stuff, had a lot of bonding time and thanks to the team leaders who did that, it just gelled the team even tighter and on the field we showed how tight we were.”

And the ultimate party was to come after Saints saw off Saracens in extra-time to lift the Premiership trophy at Twickenham.

In fact, it was so lively on the night Northampton became champions of England that Manoa didn’t even manage to make most of the victory parade on the following day!

Manoa laughs as he says: “I missed the bus, man!

“I missed the whole celebration, the thing in town and everything.

“That night was crazy, too crazy.

“At the time, we were all drinking at Salesi’s house, all the Poly boys.

“Kahn (Fotuali’i) dropped me off in the morning because we were all getting ready to go to the parade but I laid down after showering and I was like, ‘we’ve got an hour’.

“The boys called me and were like ‘where are you, we’re heading back towards the stadium?’.

“I was like ‘oh, s***’ so I just caught everyone back at the stadium when they got back to the Gardens.

“Me and Kahn both missed the bus parade.

“Salesi (Ma’afu) and G (George Pisi) and them were the only ones who made it.

“If anyone saw Salesi’s eyebrows at the parade and wondered what happened, it was because we shaved his eyebrow on that night after the game.

“We shaved Salesi and Kahn’s eyebrows - it was good times, man!”

The good times kept rolling during the following season as Saints finished top of the regular season table for the first time in their history, with Manoa again at the forefront.

But things were beginning to unravel during the second half of that season as the form started to slip a little and rumours started to surface that Manoa would be leaving at the end of the campaign as clubs showed their desperation to tempt him away from Franklin’s Gardens.

“I had a lot of people offering me a lot of stuff, but my whole thing was that I did not want to leave the Saints,” said Manoa, who would move to Toulon in the summer of 2015, along with Saints team-mate Ma’afu.

“I held off on all those other teams, even when Toulon came at me during the season.

“I met up with Toulon on my day off just before we went to play Racing 92 in the Heineken.

“I went up to Paris and met up with (Toulon owner) Mourad (Boudjellal) on that Thursday and then we flew out Friday back to Paris to play Racing.

“But at that time when I met with Mourad, I just put a ridiculous number out there because I was still talking to Jim and Shieldsy because I wanted to stay.

“I knew they wanted me to stay but they said they couldn’t afford what I was asking for.

“I told them I thought it was fair what I was asking them for because I felt I earned it, but it wasn’t something stupid.

“They’d just re-signed Courts before me and they re-signed Kahn as well and he was the marquee at that time so most of their money went out that way.

“I held off as long as I could and then when I threw that ridiculous number at Toulon, they came right back after the Racing game and it kind of shocked me.

“I still held off for two more weeks and Shieldsy wasn’t getting back and then I had a meeting with Jim and he was like ‘as much as we want to keep you - I even went to the top - we won’t be able to do it’.

“I knew I had to go and do what was best for me and my family because the offer they gave me, I didn’t think it was fair at that time for what I was putting in.

“I threw double at Toulon to what I asked from Northampton.

“I threw £600k and more at Toulon and they came right back.

“I threw £300k at Saints and I was just like ‘just pay me that for the next couple of years’ and they said they couldn’t do it.

“I said I had to go because I’d thrown something ridiculous at Toulon and they came back with a yes so I’d be stupid not to sign.”

Though Ma’afu would join Manoa on his journey across the Channel, there was no doubt that the duo and their families missed the relationships they had formed in Northampton.

“We buckled (left) with Salesi, yo,” Manoa said.

“When Salesi told me Toulon had given him an offer I was like, ‘let’s both go’ and he said okay so we ended up both going there.

“But even though I signed with Toulon, my wife didn’t want to leave - she was really happy in Northampton.

“It took a while for her to like it but she ended up loving Northampton because of the other players, their families, we did everything and it felt like home.

“Even when I come back to the States, it’s like vacation now because Northampton is always going to be home.

“I’ve still got family over there, the boys who are there still reach out.”

It is evident how much Manoa still misses Northampton, but he will perhaps never miss it more than he did during the years he spent in Europe after leaving, starting at Toulon and culminating in Cardiff.