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'Nothing scarier': Tuilagi backed to do 'special things' vs Ireland

By Chris Jones
Manu Tuilagi of England smiles during a training session at Pennyhill Park on February 19, 2024 in Bagshot, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

The concept of misfiring England throwing a player who has not played a competitive match for eleven weeks into a Guinness Six Nations clash with Grand Slam champions Ireland would appear reckless. However, when that player is Manu Tuilagi, the Sale Sharks wrecking ball, exceptions can be made.

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That is the view of Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, who has worked closely with Tuilagi, the Sale medical team and the England management to formulate a training regime that takes into account the multitude of injury problems the 32-year-old has dealt with in his career.

Tuilagi’s latest injury was a grade three groin tear suffered in Sale’s 22-20 win over Saracens on December 22 and since then the player has been following a careful recovery and training load plan that he is continuing with England this week.

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Tuilagi, who has won 59 caps, was available for selection heading into the 30-21 loss against Scotland in round three. It was a match that featured numerous handling errors by the England back division with Bath’s Ollie Lawrence – chosen ahead of Tuilagi – having a day to forget.

Now, as head coach Steve Borthwick dissects the Scotland loss and regroups his squad in the fallow week leading into the daunting task of trying to deny Ireland a second successive Grand Slam on March 9 at Twickenham, he has to weigh up the pros and cons of recalling Tuilagi.

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Sanderson is convinced Tuilagi would cope with the long lay-off and said: “There is nothing scarier than a smiling Manu Tuilagi and he has an ability to go into a big occasion and relish it. He is a game-breaker and the more time Manu is able to put a shoulder into someone’s solar plexus the more good things will happen. I have no doubt he will do special things.

“When he gets onto the pitch he is at that state of assertiveness, he is up for it rather than just getting through it and that is his mental capacity. He can take on the challenge and be in the right spot emotionally and that sets him apart from most people.

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“Getting over injuries comes with maturity and this isn’t his first rodeo. When you talk to him about it he says ‘that’s life’ and I get more gutted than him. His attitude is what can you do and he has this ability to reframe it quickly. For some people it takes months in rehab and then when they get back it is weeks to get confidence back and he is not one of them. He thinks ‘what is the worst that could happen?’ He could get injured again but has been down that road a million times.

“There are bigger motivating factors in Manu’s life than just performing and that frees you up because he is highly loved, has his family and friends and all these things count more to him. You don’t really get that with a younger player who doesn’t really have that kind of support structure. It’s not novel for him to be in this position and has a good understanding physically and knows they won’t put him on the pitch anymore if he is an injury risk.

“He has been put here in the past because if you tell Manu to jump he will just say how high. That has changed and he understands the metres and the loading he needs to put in to be able to perform at the highest level and that has taken some years in gathering. It’s almost been trial and error.

“Manu has experience and has been there and done it before. The biggest factor in players being able to play free is generally stress. The factors contributing to stress are firstly if it is novel and new to you or secondly a threat to your existence. Having a bad game and being dropped is ‘existence’ in a rugby sense and getting injured. With Manu none of it is novel because he has been there many times before.

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“I would say, at this point in this career, he is such a collected and grounded individual that he is one of the freest people you could meet. Everything is going to be all right.”

Sanderson takes comfort from the fact that when Tuilagi is with England the input from Sale in terms of workload the player should be undertaking is clearly understood. Everyone is now singing from the same hymn sheet which hasn’t always been the case.

He added: “I have spoken to Richard Hill [England team manager] and Manu is carving it up in training. He only did two sessions with us before he went into the England camp and looked really good, energetic and delighted to get the ball in his hands. He hits the deck running and we wouldn’t load him up through the sessions because we know he would over-push himself. He is such a powerful athlete; Manu comes back in with the same fitness as when he left in terms of conditioning and that is different to other people.

“I remember every meeting was a case of whose fault was it [that he got injured] and there was obvious misalignment [with England] and we had to get better at managing him. There has been an increase in communication between ourselves and England over the years and now there is absolute clarity.

“There are loads of ways to run a squad and England have always raised intensity from Premiership weeks because they have a short season and higher intensity at international level. You wouldn’t be up to scratch with Premiership loading but you couldn’t train at that intensity for 11 months.

“Manu’s intensity of training is the same across both, which wasn’t the case previously. Now we load him up going into camp and they de-load him.”

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