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'He can do it, definitely': The added dimension Manu Tuilagi craves

By Liam Heagney
Manu Tuilagi (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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It will be at next Thursday’s latest Guinness Six Nations team announcement when England officially confirm they are rolling the dice again at midfield. The anticipated return of the fit-again Manu Tuilagi to the starting line-up is poised to be the ninth match in succession that Eddie Jones will have named a different England centre partnership from one match to the next. 

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Not since Owen Farrell and Henry Slade were chosen to face France last March – two weeks after they had started together in the midfield away to Wales – have England named the same players as their 12/13 axis. It’s an intriguing lack of selection consistency. Look at how in recent Six Nations weeks England went from a Slade-Elliot Daly selection at Murrayfield to Slade-Joe Marchant at Stadio Olimpico.  

This state of flux, though, has been a regular occurrence since the 2019 World Cup. Across the 21 games that England have played since then, Jones has given starts to eight different midfield players and deployed eleven different centre partnerships. 

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Farrell-Slade has been the busiest combo, that duo rolled out as the starting 12/13 on six occasions, but the return to fitness of Tuilagi has now created the possibility of Jones placing his trust again in the Tuilagi-Slade partnership. 

It was used in the recent Autumn Nations Series opener versus Tonga and reprised two weeks later for the clash versus the Springboks in which Tuilagi lasted just seven minutes, the midfield powerhouse injuring his hamstring when diving in at the corner to score.    

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Eleven weeks were needed for Tuilagi to get himself right and after two Gallagher Premiership appearances for Sale, he was this past week called into the 25-strong England squad that got through a fallow week’s training in London ahead of next weekend’s round three renewal of the Six Nations with the home fixture against Wales.    

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The Chief, as he is known, returned to the international set-up another few kilos lighter. This season he has gone from 110kg to 107 and is now down to 103 in an attempt to lighten the load he carries into battle and better guard against the type of injuries that have been the bane of his career.

Set to turn 31 in May, the disappointing fact of Tuilagi’s stellar reputation is that he has played just 45 Test games for England when the chances are he would easily be a Test centurion by now if his body didn’t repeatedly break down on him. 

Keeping Manu fit is a Pythagoras-type theorem that his Sale boss Alex Sanderson has deeply invested in since coming to the throne in Manchester 13 months ago at a time when Tuilagi was in the foothills of his rehab from the ACL injury suffered four months earlier.  

That particular layoff mothballed him until late May and such are the lengths that Sale have gone to keep the midfielder on his feet ahead of his latest comeback that they made use of the England GPS system so they could monitor Tuilagi in the same way that he is watched over when on national team duty in teams of his training loading and all the rest of the science involved. 

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“If anything we want to be more cautious and careful with his increasing loading,” explained club boss Sanderson about the thinking surrounding a Tuilagi return that saw him play 30 minutes as a sub at Harlequins followed by a 50-minute start in the Sale midfield at home to Worcester before he hooked up with England in London.

“There are very few people who can step up to that (Test) level without having trained up to it. It’s like when you wake up one day and say, ‘I am going to go and win the Olympics’. Firstly you have got to be genetically predisposed and then you have got to put years in training, haven’t you? He has – but he still needs that incremental increase in training week in week out so he can just train at that level otherwise he will break down.” 

You’d think that a player who has only featured in just five of the 21 England games since the last World Cup wouldn’t be someone worth investing so much faith in given the high risk that he could quickly break down again, but the physical uniqueness of Tuilagi ensures he remains a gold standard player who is a Jones must-pick. 

Look at the lengths the England coach went to for the mid-November series game against Australia, picking Tuilagi for a first start on the wing since 2014 in order to accommodate Farrell alongside Slade after the skipper had overcome the false-positive saga from the previous weekend versus the Tongans.

“He is certainly unique,” agreed Sanderson when asked about the Tuilagi brand of physicality that England are set to unleash against the Welsh. “Ollie Lawrence has got that bit about him, hasn’t he? There is the odd forward. (Sam) Simmonds, he’s probably a bit quicker, ain’t he, but not quite as powerful. There is no one with the same punch to power ratio that Manu has got.”

The enduring perception of Tuilagi is that he is essentially just a big lump but that is a description that Sanderson doesn’t entertain. Yes, he is physical but there is so much more to his game. “We had that conversation, me and him, when I first turned up here about where he wanted to take his game so he can keep progressing and that was the one area that he identified that he wanted to improve. 

“As a player, you look to work on the strengths, not the weaknesses. You look to work on the things that give them that X-factor and so he has focused on those strengths for a long time with respect to how powerful he is and just a gain line toy if you like on either side of the ball. 

“His focus with us, he has been sat in the attack meetings with us, in the attack leaders group as well, to try and progress that side of his game so he is able to, look he can give 20-metre passes but it is more those balls right at the line where he can just, because people suck into him, give that short pass, that timing of a short pass which Brad Barritt was really good at that would give an extra dimension. 

“He can do it, definitely. He is skilful enough. It’s just getting out of that bracket that everyone has seemingly labelled him in. It probably shows with his weight loss as well. If it was just about him breaking the gain line he’d probably stay a bit heavier, but he is keen to show that he is more than just that.” 

Brain more than brawn then is something Sanderson wants rugby fans to really wake up to when discussing the merits of Tuilagi? “Yeah, definitely. People don’t give him credit. People have never given him credit for that because he is a very straight, simple talking individual so he won’t wax lyrical about the intricacies of the game. 

“He will just say it as it is but you can’t misconstrue that for lack of rugby intelligence. He is an expert twice over really at his age at the moment because he has been playing at the highest level from a very early age.”

August 2011 was the date of Tuilagi’s Test debut. Eleven years later, expect February 2022 to be the month that marks his latest return to the England XV fold.    

ENGLAND’S MIDFIELD SINCE WORLD CUP 2019
PLAYED: 21 matches; USED: 11 different midfield partnerships; SELECTED: 8 different players.

PARTNERSHIPS: Farrell-Slade (6), Farrell-Tuilagi (3), Slade-Lawrence (2), Lawrence-Slade (2), Tuilagi-Slade (2), Farrell-Joseph (1), Slade-Joseph (1), Farrell-Lawrence (1), Kelly-Slade (1), Slade-Daly (1), Slade-Marchant (1). 

APPEARANCES: Slade (16), Farrell (11), Lawrence (5), Tuilagi (5), Joseph (2), Daly (1), Kelly (1), Marchant (1). 

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