The youngest of six brothers in the Samoan rugby dynasty to have played for Leicester Tigers, Manu Tuilagi has had a glittering career for both club and country.
Having four older siblings, who have all represented Samoa, it was no surprise that this firecracker of a rugby player quickly found a passion for the sport.
He moved to the UK as a teenager to follow his brothers on their respective career paths, before joining Rumney RFC’s youth setup.
Shortly after, he moved to Leicester to join the Tigers’ academy at 15. He made his first official appearances for the Tigers in 2009, but his first season with the senior side was the 2010-11 season where he quickly became an established first-team regular.
Flying his way through the England ranks, he played for the U16 and U18 age group teams, making a hugely physical impact along the way.
He became England’s youngest Rugby World Cup player at just 20 years, beating previous record holder Jonny Wilkinson.
He scored England’s try in the memorable 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand before being involved in the final defeat by South Africa.
Tuilagi left Leicester in 2020 to join Premiership rivals Sale Sharks.
One of the biggest names in world rugby, Manu Tuilagi, has become an ambassador for didi rugby.
With his own family now running around having fun, the powerful centre, who now plays for Sale Sharks after making his name at Leicester Tigers, says he knows the value of getting kids active.
“What an amazing programme didi rugby is, allowing the little ones and their families to get physically active and involved in our great sport of rugby,” said Manu.
“But the most important thing is for the little ones to have fun and enjoy themselves and get a brilliant introduction into our sport through didi rugby classes.”
Manu Tuilagi joins Sale
Having made his debut for Leicester in 2009, Manu made a name for himself as an incredibly powerful runner, like-breaker and tackler and that led to a successful career with both the England national team and the British & Irish Lions.
He remains one of the most iconic figures in world rugby. didi rugby CEO Vicky Macqueen says she is delighted that the man who grew up in Vicky’s home town of Hinckley has joined the didi family to encourage more youngsters to get involved in the sport.
“Manu is a huge figure in world rugby and everyone at didi rugby is buzzing about his decision to become an ambassador for us,” she said.
“What some people don’t know is that Manu is a lovely person and a family man who adores his home life with family and friends.
“Coming from a big family himself with lots of brothers, he knows the importance of play and having fun as a youngster and he will be encouraging children across the country to get involved in didi rugby classes to grow both their skills and confidence, while having fun.”
didi rugby’s latest ambassador was eating at a Nandos restaurant when she got some of the best news of her life.
It was so unexpected though, she thought her parents’ surprise card was a complete wind-up.
Jodie Ounsley sat with her mum and dad eating chicken when she prized open an envelope from her mum.
It said: ‘Congratulations on your first professional rugby contract with England’!
When her parents Jo and Phil convinced her it was no joke, confusion turned to shock… and then excitement.
The girl from Yorkshire who was born profoundly deaf in both ears was now an England Rugby Sevens player.
Jodie loved every minute of training with her new team-mates who she said ‘did everything possible’ to make things as easy as possible with communication an obvious challenge on the training and playing surface.
Head coach Charlie Hayter said of Jodie after she joined the camp: “She showed some great physical attributes so we wanted to offer her a contract.
“Since she arrived, she has fitted in really well with the rest of the team and made great progress. Jodie loves a bit of banter and she puts extra hours in to make sure that she really understands what we are doing too.”
Sevens team mate and head coach of didi rugby Worcester, Alex Matthews said Jodie was a joy to be around.
“Fortunately for me, I was Jodie’s mentor in the Sevens programme, which to be honest, I think benefited me more so than her,” said Alex.
“Her resilience and dedication is unbelievable, not only shown through her training and mindset, but also shown off the field through her personal circumstances of overcoming being born profoundly deaf and having integrated into a team sport.
“She’s modest and authentic, with the natural desire to help and inspire others. She’s a brilliant ambassador to have on board at didi!”
While Covid-19 has made her Sevens future uncertain for the time being, she is determined and very driven to be back with a bang when competitive England Sevens rugby returns.
Until then, playing for Sale Sharks and being a didi rugby ambassador are two of the things that will keep her busy – and she is throwing herself into the latter with a live Facebook broadcast in didi’s ‘Skills and Storytime’ online session during the latest national lockdown.
“I was really nervous doing it but wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone,” said Jodie. “But I really loved it and had great fun.
“didi rugby is great for kids. It gets them active, mixing with other children and gets them into good habits at a young age. I am really pleased to be an ambassador and will love getting involved.”
didi rugby CEO and founder Vicky Macqueen added: “Jodie is a joy to be around and her attitude is infectious.
“She was brilliant doing our Skills and Storytime session online (see pic below) and we are absolutely made-up that she has chosen to become a didi ambassador.
“I am sure she will be inspiring lots of other youngsters to take up the sport and join our classes in the coming months.”
Jodie was born without hearing but a Cochlear ear implant and speech therapy has vastly improved her ability to communicate with speech.
Even so, life was far from easy at a mainstream school and she became drawn away from academic pursuits and into the sporting environment. PE, athletics and running were things she loved doing and success soon followed.
She is a five-times champion of the annual ‘Coal Race’ in her native Yorkshire where you literally run for a mile with a bag on coal on your shoulders!
Ju-Jitsu titles arrived in her teens and then she flew to Turkey as a 16-year-old to compete against fully-grown women in the 100m and 200m Deaf Olympics.
By then, rugby was already on the horizon but doctors had warned against the dangers of playing contacts sports like rugby with the implant. Her dad looked into it and was satisfied that that danger would be greatly reduced with a scrum cap on.
“I soon rocked up at my local club, Sandal, with a scrum cap and boots and explained I was keen to play but had hearing issues,” Jodie Ounsley explained.
“They threw me quickly into a side and then threw me onto a pitch where I really didn’t have much of a club what was going on. I found myself on the wing and when I first went for the ball, I literally tripped up over my own shoelace! I picked up the ball and just ran for my life. Somehow, I passed a few people and scored a try. It was exhilarating and I loved it.
Jodie got a place at Loughborough College aged 16 and left home ‘to play rugby’.
There was soon age-range appearances for England but her rugby career really took off after she had recovered from a dislocated shoulder.
Then came the Nandos with mum and dad, an England Sevens deal, a new club in Sale Sharks, the Deaf Sports Personality of the Year 2020 award and a driving ambition to represent Great Britain in the Olympic Games still firmly in her thoughts.
“I would say to anyone who struggles with a disability, just go for it and try rugby,” said Jodie. “Don’t let your disability not be the reason for giving rugby a go.”