The early favourite to sign Manu Tuilagi, and why Gatland may have a say in it
Tuilagi is one of six high profile players to reject new, cut-price contracts with the Premiership side and the club confirmed his departure last night. The squad were asked to accept reduced wages by way of new deals, albeit with an inbuilt ‘mechanism through which a proportion of forgone earnings could be reclaimed when the Club returns to profitability.’ Tuilagi, Noel Reid, Kyle Eastmond, Greg Bateman, Telusa Veainu and unofficially Jordan Taufua will all depart, all failed to sign new contracts.
This leaves the six clubless at an awkward time of the season. The vast majority of the northern hemisphere clubs having wrapped up their recruitment, and combined with tightened purse strings thanks to the pandemic, it’s likely all will have to take a hit should they find a club willing to take them.
Tuilagi, however, is an exceptional case and his headline-grabbing departure will have pricked ears and chequebooks around the globe. In the 24 hours since it became official, the blockbusting back has been linked with Steve Diamond’s Sale Sharks, Top 14 giants Racing 92, nouveau riche ProD2 side Beziers and Canadian Rugby League newcomers Toronto Wolfpack.
Yet RugbyPass understands that Toulouse are the early favourites to sign the Leicester star. The aristocrats of French rugby have enjoyed a revival in the last two seasons but their recruitment ahead of season 2020/21 has been relatively modest. Tuilagi could be a perfect fit in a midfield that includes French international Sofiane Guitoune and as well as Lucas Tauzin, Pita Aki and Pierre Fouyssac.
For all that, it could be external factors that put a stop to Tuilagi leaving England. It’s being widely reported that England head coach Eddie Jones is set on the Samoan born centre staying in England, where he can remain available for Test selection. The 29-year-old will be 32 by the next Rugby World Cup, and Jones’ likely still harbours designs on bringing him to the tournament.
Leaving Jones aside, Warren Gatland and the British and Irish Lions may too have a significant impact on his staying in England, for at least another season. While playing in the Home Nations is not a technical stipulation for Lions inclusion, Gatland selection blessing may be needed if Tuilagi does choose the Top 14.
Clearly, if Tuilagi isn’t playing international rugby in the lead up to the tour of South Africa, it may not play well with Gatland, who will likely view the Guinness Six Nations as the ultimate testing ground ahead of the celebrated tour.
However, if the centre is getting regular game time with Stade Toulousain at the right end of the Top 14 and Heineken Champions Cup, Chiefs head Gatland might be convinced go with the Tuilagi, who won a Test cap in the 2013 tour of Australia and who was a star of England’s 2020 Six Nations tournament and Rugby World Cup run in Japan in 2019.
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