England star Manu Tuilagi stunned coaches, parents and players at Melton Junior Rugby Club’s Christmas party when he arrived as a surprise Santa Claus.
The Leicester Tigers ace answered a last minute SOS sent out on social media for a replacement Santa after someone dropped out through ill health.
A message was posted on Facebook at around 3pm by under 7s coach Becky Box, just three hours before the party was due to begin on Friday.
And as 70 youngsters, aged from babies up to 11, waited in the clubhouse, off Burton Road, in walked a burly Santa in the shape of superstar Manu.
Club secretary Jenny Beech said: “When Manu walked in and removed his beard everyone was absolutely blown away.
“Some of the kids were so excited because they are really big rugby fans.
“The children couldn’t wait to go into the grotto to see Santa and a lot of the mums were going in to sit on Santa’s knee.”
Manu lives in a village not far from Melton and he was made aware of the club’s Facebook SOS message by his older brother, Freddie Tuilagi Senior, who has run rugby camps there and has social media connection with some of the players and coaches.
Freddie accompanied Manu on the visit as well his son Freddie Tuilagi Junior.
The children all received a wrapped up sweet selection box when they visited the grotto.
“Some of the younger ones didn’t know who he was but they were happy that Santa had arrived,” said Jenny.
“But a lot of the kids recognised him and the adults were amazed because most of them had no idea he was going to suddenly turn up.”
Manu has been dogged with bad publicity during his career, having been temporarily suspended from playing for England for off-field misdemeanors and this week he faces another ban from playing for Tigers after being accused of a dangerous tackle in a match on Sunday.
But Jenny added: “Manu was absolutely brilliant - he was a really genuine guy.
“He stayed a while to talk to the children and have his photo taken with him.
“What warmed my heart was that we didn’t approach him to do it.
“He just heard about the message on social media and wanted to come along and help us out.”
The club’s mini and junior rugby players return to training on January 7 and new youngsters are always welcome.