No fairytale Premiership farewell for Manu Tuilagi but he has faith in possible successor

Ma'asi-White played seven times for Sale in 2023/24 and is hoping for further opportunities next season
©Sale Sharks

As the full-time whistle sounded at The Rec, Sale Sharks’ hopes of a second Premiership title, their first since 2006, came to an end against Bath.

Alex Sanderson’s charges had threatened to upset the odds in the West Country, especially when Tom O’Flaherty dived over in the second half to hand the Sharks the lead.

But despite Sale hauling themselves back into Saturday’s semi-final, Bath proved to be too strong as the boot of Finn Russell and Niall Annett’s try sent Johann van Graan’s side to Twickenham.

The defeat brought the curtain down on the Sale careers of Sam James and Cobus Wiese who fought hard from the start in their final match for the Sharks.

It also signalled the end for the great Manu Tuilagi who was powerless from the sidelines after getting injured in Sale’s win against Saracens in the final game of the Premiership season.

The dynamic centre has been huge for the Sharks both on and off the pitch over the last four seasons. He also became a fan favourite. His absence will be felt heavily by Sale but also by the Premiership itself.

With the 33-year-old now looking ahead to a new adventure with Bayonne, Fijian captain Waisea Nayacalevu has been recruited to cover the Tuilagi-shaped gap at centre, while academy graduate Will Addison will be a versatile option in the backline as he returns to the club after six seasons with Ulster.

Neither will be a long-term solution for Tuilagi, with Nayacalevu set to be 34 years old and Addison 32 years old by the time the 2024/25 season kicks off.

But Tuilagi believes his successor is already on Sale’s books.

He said: “Rekeiti (Ma'asi-White), he’s got a big future. He is so exciting man. When you see him train, he is good.

“He has got the size and skills. I can’t wait to see him get on this team and get the opportunity.”

The 21-year-old did not feature for Sale until December 30 in a defeat to Northampton due to a hamstring injury, but he appeared in six games after New Year, particularly impressing against La Rochelle in the Champions Cup.

And Ma'asi-White has loved every minute he has spent on the pitch for Sale as well as learning from an idol in Tuilagi.

He said: “It’s been a massive step in a short time because at the start of the season, I had a major hamstring issue, grade four.

“Manu has helped a lot. He has been a big part of my game. I loved him when I watched him growing up with his ball-carrying skills.

“And since returning from injury, I’ve been named on the bench, which has been exciting. Then, during the Six Nations break, I was named to play against Newcastle Falcons and Northampton Saints. I realised that, physicality-wise, I fit right in, to be fair. I was happy. The coaches were happy. It’s been great.”

With several clubs interested in the inside centre after Wasps disbanded in 2022, Ma’asi-White decided to join Sale.

He saw this move as the best for his rugby development to provide the perfect pathway to achieve his dream, having featured heavily for England at Under-20s level.

He said: “Everyone’s ambition is to play for England. You always dream when you are older that you want to play for your country but I want to step up and do it ASAP because it is a short career. I want to get there now. I want to show what I can do out there.”

While he wants to earn his first cap for England as soon as he possibly can, the youngster knows he must start consistently for Sale.

The 15-cap England Under-20 international will look to further his game by studying off Nayacalevu, the same way he learned from the departing Tuilagi.

He said: “He is a very exciting player. He has a strong offload game and the ability to support runs. It is just that Fijian nature of being able to predict where the game is going to go, and he is always there. Learning from him would be amazing.

“That is my game, an offload game but he is also a winger. I’ve played on the wing before, so it would be great to learn from here too to be that triple threat. To have that pass, carry, and kick. To be unpredictable.”

Rugby flows through the veins of Ma'asi-White, which will be music to the ears of Sharks supporters.

His father Viliami was capped 36 times for Tonga while his brother Samson was previously at Northampton Saints before a kidney transplant forced him to retire. Eldest brother Suva has been at Championship side Coventry this season so it is clear family has been vital to Ma’asi-White’s development.

And the 21-year-old is confident they can help provide the necessary support as he aspires to establish himself as Tuilagi’s successor for the foreseeable future, starting with next season.

He said: “My family helps to drive me. They are the ones who have started me up since I was young, with my dad playing.

“I’m still taking loads of advice from my father, the same way any child does. Waiting for the analysis of a performance.

“I’ve always wanted to be a top-class professional rugby player and keep performing at the top level. Now I’ve got that feeling, I want it to continue, and that is up to me.”

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