Manoa: I’m here for the ride

USA Rugby is WORKFORIT Rugby

HOUSTON, Texas - Northampton Saints reached their first Aviva Premiership Grand Final in 2013, partly due to the contributions of Men's Eagle Samu Manoa at lock. It has been a long road from the streets of East Bay, Calif., for the man dubbed "Blockmonstah," but he finds himself in the best form of his career and will make his second appearance for the Eagles Saturday against Ireland.

The 28-year-old played football in Northern California before switching to the family business of rugby. Manoa's grandfather and namesake, Samuela Mafana Ikani Manoa, captained the Tongan national team in the 1960s. Manoa played rugby during high school and made a brief stint in the Rugby Super League for San Francisco Golden Gate before leaving the game for four years, a decision he considers his only regret.

"The first two games I played in the Super League, I got red carded," he said. "Then I didn't come back for four years."

"I was in a bad place at the time and the Wells brothers in San Francisco came in, swooped me up and helped me get back on my feet. They kept me playing rugby and I'm glad they did."

Manoa returned to San Francisco Golden Gate under president Tony Wells and head coach Grant Wells and led the team to its first RSL championship in 2009. In 2010 he received his big break: a contract with Northampton Saints of the Aviva Premiership. He had to leave his home and family, but had their support as motivation.

"It was hard, but I had to get out of there," he said. "It was a good opportunity and I took it."

"It all comes down to hard work. When I signed for Northampton, a lot of people here expected me to come right back. I had to prove a lot of people wrong. That was my state of mind when I was training every day and playing for Northampton. I was trying to show the city, the team and the fans that I'm there to play and I'm a good player."

Manoa was selected to the ESPN Aviva Premiership Dream Team for the 2011-12 season and earned the Northampton Supporters Player of the Year Award in 2013 on the way to a Grand Final appearance. Northampton and Manoa defeated Chris Wyles' Saracens in the Semifinal but lost to Leicester at Twickenham in May.

"When I signed for the Saints, they were like, 'Who's this guy? Where'd this guy come from?' So now they know and they appreciate me playing for them and I appreciate them supporting me playing for the team," Manoa said. "I like it because I've upped my game a lot and I know a lot more about rugby now than I did before. I'm a better player and I can come back and use it with the Eagles."

Manoa is among a select few Eagles playing professionally overseas, with Wyles at Saracens, Takudzwa Ngwenya and Scott LaValla in France's Top 14 at Biarritz and Stade Francais Paris, respectively, and captain Todd Clever at NTT Shining Arcs of Japan's Top League. As rugby grows in the United States and the Eagles get more opportunities to play top-level international competition, Manoa is out to prove Americans have a place in the game.

"The way I play, it's to let the world know we have good players out here," he said. "I do tell them there are a lot of good athletes that haven't been seen yet. I'm lucky I'm one of the players out there to be able to show that."

Manoa suited up alongside Ngwenya this summer with the Barbarian Football Club, one of the world's most prominent invitational clubs, for two matches against the British and Irish Lions and England. Their selections marked the first time an American has been selected for the team in over a decade, and Manoa considers his selection a favorite moment of his career, on par with appearing for the Eagles.

Former Eagles Head Coach Eddie O'Sullivan handed Manoa his first and only cap in 2010 against Georgia, but he missed the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand to play for Northampton. He watched from afar as the Eagles lost three of four Pool Stage matches.

"It was tough watching, but I had to do what was best for me at the time, and with the way the coaches at the time approached me with it," Manoa said. "It was good to see the boys and I would have liked to experience it, but I had to do what was right for me."

Head Coach Mike Tolkin has recalled Manoa to an experienced Eagles squad for the international test against Ireland June 8 and the 6-foot-6, 269-pound lock expects to be back for good as they start their journey to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.

"I think [Tolkin] understands my circumstances a lot better than Eddie did," he said. "And I respect the way he has approached me with it. I've been gone a long time and I like how he's running the program. It's good to be back and play under him. I'm just trying to ease my way back in here; it's been a long time."

Though he will be leaving the Eagles after the match against Ireland to recover from a long, non-stop season, Manoa will return for the World Cup Qualifiers in August against Canada after preseason with Northampton. He signed a contract extension with the Saints, running until 2015, ensuring his availability for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

"I made that clear already with Tolks," Manoa said. "I'm down to go all the way with the boys. I'm here for the ride."

The Tonga match June 14 at the Home Depot Center could have had a much different look had Manoa chosen to represent Tonga on the international stage, a decision pushed on him by his grandfather, but playing with his friends and family felt right. It did not mean he turned his back on his family heritage however, as the lessons he learned from his family has helped shape him into the player he has become today.

"Every game I try to play better than the last game," Manoa said. "I try to give it my all like it's the last game I'll play. My dad told me: don't let the same number across from you beat you, you have to make sure you beat him. The first person you hit, you have to hit him so hard you make sure he doesn't run your way again. That's how I play.

"I have to do my family proud because I'm representing my last name."

This summer, Manoa will run a youth rugby camp in the Bay Area from July 15-19 to give back everything he has learned about the game, and to teach the youngsters "rugby's a good thing."

First, Manoa will start at blindside flanker for the Eagles against Tier One nation Ireland in Houston. The Eagles began their summer season with a loss to Canada in the Pacific Nations Cup but were missing international players like Manoa in Edmonton.

"It's a good match for the Eagles," Manoa said. "To win would be a real positive and a step forward for the United States, just to show we can play rugby, too. Hopefully we'll be up there, ranked in the top four."

Watch Manoa and the Eagles on Universal Sports Network Saturday, June 8, live from BBVA Compass Stadium at 7:30 P.M. CT.