SAPPORO, 19 Sep - Tonga’s Nasi Manu says being at Rugby World Cup 2019 is “emotional and surreal” after his grueling recovery from testicular cancer.
The number eight did not play for his Italian club Benetton Rugby last season after his diagnosis. He had surgery to remove an abnormal growth, then endured months of chemotherapy.
"I had tears just then. I don’t think anybody knows just how much I have been through to get here," said Manu on Thursday at a welcome ceremony where caps were presented to the Tongan squad by World Rugby chief executive officer Brett Gosper.
"Not only the surgery and chemotherapy, but also the physical battle to get myself in good enough shape," he said.
Manu was circumspect about Tonga’s opening match against England at the Sapporo Dome on Sunday.
"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.
"I don’t want to think that far ahead. I was so proud and excited to be named captain for our first match in the Pacific Nations Cup (last month) and then two days before it I tore a pectoral muscle in the gym, so I couldn’t play."
Manu's wife and two-year-old daughter are flying out for the first two weeks of the tournament. Many others have also offered help and inspiration.
"All the doctors obviously – I was sent to the best of the best in Milan – Aaron Cruden, and all my team-mates at Benetton." New Zealand international Cruden had testicular cancer aged 19 and went on to earn 50 caps for the All Blacks.
"I was at a pretty low point when I was sent the clip of (my Benetton team-mates') 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. Especially as they had won in the last minute.
"I asked Aaron about his experience and he gave me hope. But I am a religious man and I prayed too.
"I was preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. The day I was told I had cancer, I was given the news at 9.45am and had surgery at 2pm.
"The chemotherapy was a rollercoaster and a mental battle. I was meant to have four cycles every 21 days, but had to miss one because my white blood cells were too low.
"I didn’t respond very well to it and was very nauseous, but didn’t want to be sick and fought against it. I just wanted to know if I’d be able to have more kids and be a good father to the one I had.
At 31, Manu feared this would be his last chance to play in a World Cup, and was relieved to be picked despite his lack of game time.
"I am a forward and I believe the heart of a team is in the forwards. I also believe that to win you have to go through the heart."