Northampton’s physically-gifted and versatile forward is the man to power Saints past Leinster at Franklin’s Gardens
9:52PM GMT 06 Dec 2013
Samu Manoa is a rugby Ryan Giggs. He is a great talent, a wonderful player, but he does not play for one of the international big guns and will never get the chance to show how good he could have been on the biggest stage. Manoa represents the United States, and while the Americans are trying valiantly to improve under Nigel Melville, with huge rugby programmes in place that are generating a lot of enthusiasm, they still have a long way to go.
Instead Manoa does what he does, week in, week out in a Northampton Saints jersey. He can play 4, 5, 6, or 8, and would be a shoo-in for any starting XV other than the All Blacks or South Africa. However, even there he would be in the squad because Samu is someone you would make room for in your team.
Last year Tom Youngs was awarded Aviva player of the season after some strong performances, even though he was away a lot with theEngland side. As good as he was, I was surprised they looked past Samu, who was epic in his consistency of performances.
He is the ultimate club man. He does not do international weekends so is available every week; he is a superb physical athlete so he can look after himself over a long season; and he can play in four positions.
European rugby weekends are his internationals. He has no choice but to treat these games as the near pinnacle of his career. In the next seven days he will come up against Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy, Mike Ross and Devon Toner. There will be moments with the US Eagles which are special because they are his national side. But very much better than Saturday’s match against Leinster with the Saints? That is why he is so dangerous and important to the Saints.
I have not seen Manoa have a bad game. According to the ERC website he is 6ft 6in and 19st, and while that may be an exaggeration, let’s just say he is happily massive. In the old days this sort of beast would have waddled from scrum to scrum and horizontal line-out to horizontal line-out. Not today. I guess he would not have too much trouble playing inside centre and his handling ability would easily get him into a basketball team. For a man who has shovels as hands, the delicacy of his ball movement in traffic is exceptional. Soft simple passes, gut balls – where he rams the ball American football style into his team-mates’ midriff – are a speciality.
My favourite part of his hands are his offloads. When getting smashed, when going to deck like a falling tree, the brain is always alert to the speed of fall and pace of oncoming runners, allowing him to lift the ball into the space. Last week against Worcester, he charged into the heart of their defence in their 22, he was taken to ground, as he fell, the next defender splayed their arms to show the referee he was going in for the turnover but before he got there Manoa had flicked the ball away. Three defenders had been sucked in and Collins scampered in at the corner for Northampton.
Northern hemisphere forwards are behind the Aussies and New Zealand forwards in their ball handling but Manoa stands out like a beacon.
In world terms I really believe that only the super-talented Kieran Read, of the All Blacks, is better at the restart than Samu, giving the Saints a very powerful offensive weapon. At the same time, Samu does some serious damage.
There is the assumption that only Courtney Lawes does all the big hits in the Northampton team. Away at Castres, Lawes was unbelievable – that European game has launched him even higher in public esteem and gave him the platform for his November internationals. However, he is not a one-man pack. Dylan Hartley is in the form of his life, Tom Wood the toughest of the tough who will have an awesome battle with Sean O’Brien on Saturday. These are top international forwards, and Manoa measures up comfortably. Huge shoulders and great flexibility allow him to get low and get his enormous rump driving through people. He is a defensive wrecking ball, and this could come in very handy on Saturday because the Irish side are masters of getting the ball and keeping it. Break up their possession with big hits or athletic prowess and you have a good chance of beating them.
Over the two legs Leinster will start as favourites to emerge from these back-to-back games with more points. But Northampton get a first crack at a home game and this could mean they grab the initiative. They tend to react well when their backs are against the wall and find a way to win; they are good street fighters and Manoa is one of the best.
Against the Ospreys in the last home game in Heineken Cup Manoa just made things look so easy. A five-yard scrum, a lovely set-piece platform, Manoa picked up from the base playing No 8 and literally strolled in with defenders flying around in wrong directions. And just as the Ospreys fought their way back into the game, with only four points in it, Alun Wyn Jones and Richie Hibbard went on the charge and decided to go for some off the top gain line line-out ball action. Manoa read the play and picked off the intercept like a cornerback in American football. Trouble averted.
Last week away at Worcester he made yards in every carry, even when given a standing start and defenders in front of him, his nifty footwork and acceleration were remarkable for a giant. He often found himself at the back of driving mauls where he was happy to explode off the back.
On Saturday he will be up against one of the best sides there has ever been in Europe, but these are Samu’s moments. And while English and Irish fans will be looking for one of their own to dominate, it may well be a foreigner who steps up and delivers.