Becoming the first player in the tournament to be fined for wearing a branded mouthguard was one thing. Being hauled out of Auckland harbour last Sunday to be first detained by the police and then handed out a pre-charge warning for disorderly behaviour was another altogether.
The now very public photographs of Tuilagi standing dripping wet in his underwear explaining himself to harbour officials has been seen across the globe; an act, perhaps, of high jinks by an ordinary young punter, but one of ill-chosen thought and timing by a high-profile England rugby player less than 24 hours after crashing out of a World Cup riddled by off-field controversy.
‘It was a nice day, I was sore after the game and I thought it would be good for recovery,’ he explains, with what is at best a forced smile.
Then he shakes his head again and adds: ‘It was such a stupid thing to do, wasn’t it?’
Indeed it was, and for the past six days the youngest of the famed six Tuilagi rugby-playing brothers, and potentially the best of the lot, has had plenty of explaining to do.
‘First it was Martin Johnson. Obviously, he wasn’t happy. He hit me with a £3,000 fine, we issued a brief statement and, from an England point of view, it was sorted. I was a bit worried about Johnno’s reaction but I was a lot more worried about my family, especially my Mum.
‘Freddie found out and phoned me. I refused to answer at first because I knew what was coming. In the end I knew I had to face up to it. He was furious. Then my other brothers contacted me, first Alex, then Andy, then the others. One by one they shouted at me for being such a fool.
‘The worst moment was dealing with my Mum. She wasn’t at all happy and she didn’t even know the whole story at first. She just thought I’d been fined for swimming in the harbour. When she found out I’d jumped from a ferry she called me an idiot, stupid – in fact, every name in the book.
‘It was then that I also realised that the news would get back to my extended family in Samoa. That made me ashamed of myself.
‘When I got back to Leicester, Richard Cockerill [Tigers' director of rugby] got hold of me and had a go as well. He told me that I’d let myself down and the club and the club’s fans, and he is right.
‘In fact, I’ve let down my family, I’ve let down Martin Johnson and I’ve let down the people of England. I didn’t mean to offend anyone.
‘I didn’t kill anyone, I just took a swim. It was a lot worse because it was the day after losing to France and it was at the end of a tournament in which too much focus had been on what the players had been up to off the field. But I’ve made it easy for the critics, what with punching Chris Ashton in May and now this.
‘I thought I had a decent World Cup on the field but people will be talking about my swim more than my play and, for that reason, I am very disappointed with myself.’
So why did he do it?
‘I was on the ferry with all the Leicester lads in the team and when I mentioned doing it to them they all said I was all talk and I wouldn’t follow it through,’ he says. ‘Then I had to prove them wrong, of course. I’m not blaming anyone but myself.’
For such a strong man, Tuilagi delivers his confessional looking down, shifting around in his chair, playing with his hands and appearing uncomfortable.
‘My brothers played for Samoa, which is a small nation with little spotlight on it. I play for England. I now realise just how big the expectation is on our shoulders, on and off the field.
‘I’m only 20 but I understand now that I’m still a role model. I haven’t been a very good one, have I? But that’s going to change.’
The jokes are already doing the rounds. ‘Yeah, I’ve heard some of them,’ he admits. ‘Manu overboard.’ He smiles ruefully. ‘It hurts.’
It also hurts Tuilagi that he was fined £5,000 for wearing a branded mouthguard. ‘I was p***ed off because I didn’t even know I wasn’t supposed to wear a branded guard,’ he says. ‘If that was the case maybe the IRB should have given us all mouthguards themselves. They must have been blind because hundreds of players were wearing branded mouthguards in most of the teams.
‘It’s only really since I’ve returned to England and left the World Cup bubble that I’ve realised people are not too happy with us because of how we played and how we behaved.
‘I’ve already had a long, hard think about how I’ve conducted myself and, of course, all my brothers have been talking to me, too.
‘I’m going to have to learn quickly but I will. And from now on, I want most of my talking to be done on the rugby pitch.’
The shame of it all is that Tuilagi, despite his discrepancies, made such an impact in the five England games in New Zealand – all of which he started in – that his will be one of the first names on the England teamsheet for when they kick off the 2012 Six Nations.
It is a game he is desperate to play in, if only to start putting right the wrongs of the World Cup. He has a myriad of emotions right now.
‘I’m upset about my stupidity, I’m in shock that we lost to France and I’m amazed that already I have played in a World Cup,’ he admits.
The first thing he did on returning to his Leicester home was to watch a recording of last week’s losing quarter-final.
‘France seemed to want it more than us but it was typical of how we played throughout the tournament,’ he says. ‘We were only good against Romania, and that was Romania. For the rest we were poor and lucky to beat Argentina and Scotland.
‘When teams put pressure on us we lost focus and forgot our game-plan. We are so much better than that but it’s no use saying it because we’re out.
‘I’ve never seen a dressing room like that afterwards. I didn’t know what to say. It was dead quiet, apart from the sound of some crying.
‘It was like being at a funeral. I know some people are not very positive about the England team right now but it hurt everyone so much. I never want to be in a dressing room like that again.’
Then there is manager Johnson, a man who played with his brothers Freddie and Alex at Leicester.
‘He’s a legend to all our family, to the whole of rugby, and I feel we’ve let him down. And I’ve let him down because of that swim.
‘Every single player wants him to stay in charge. You could see how much losing hurt him and if I’ve now added to the pressure on his shoulders, then I’m very, very sorry.’
So what now? Tuilagi is hoping to play for the Tigers in the Aviva Premiership against Sale on October 28. He plans to work on his kicking game and also his positional sense in defence. He then prays that he will be part of an England team that can expect a mass shakeup.
‘I feel a lot older suddenly,’ he concludes. ‘And I’ve got some work to do now, haven’t I?’ Manu Tuilagi nods his head and grits his teeth. ‘It starts now.’
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