The end of the road for Manu Tuilagi
That is surely that, right? How many second chances does a man deserve? At what point do we need to be honest with ourselves and each other that some players won’t ever come right? Maybe our fates are sealed and our destinies have long mapped out. Maybe all the wishful thinking in the world doesn’t count for anything. Maybe Manu Tuilagi is just never going to be the man England rugby needs him to be.
On his day he is one of the most destructive runners in the game. Opposition players talk about how hard he is. That’s not always a metaphor. There are accounts that his body can feel like its made of concrete. That tackling him or being tackled by him is akin to being hit by a double-door fridge that’s come loose from a moving freight truck.
He’s not just a brute. No one who reaches this level, or who wins 46 Test caps for their country and one for the British and Irish Lions, does so on sheer physicality alone. His 19 Test tries are as much a testament to his ability to pick an angle, to identify a gap in the opposition’s line, as it is a consequence of his work in the gym and his athletic gifts. It would be remiss, lazy even, not to acknowledge that he is a phenomenal rugby player with a very astute rugby brain.
And so, as he warmed up in Sale’s training gear before his comeback game against Northampton Saints on Saturday, there was a tingle in the air. The Sharks also had Tom Curry and George Ford going through their pre-game routines, but it felt as if all eyes were on Tuilagi. This was it. This was the dawn of a new chapter. A chance to reshape the narrative and prove the doubters wrong.
It lasted 13 minutes. After a bright start that saw him involved in Sale’s opening try – straightening from the line before finding Robert du Preez on the wraparound – he unfurled a UFC-style elbow into the jaw of Tommy Freeman as he carried into contact.
It was a sickening blow in real time. The replays on the big screen made it look worse. Even before referee Ian Tempest flashed his red card to the sky, Tuilagi’s future sharpened into focus.
Tuilagi red card #GallagherPrem pic.twitter.com/pucrWBAoiD
— Brett Igoe (@brettruganalyst) February 18, 2023
He’ll be back again in club colours. Who wouldn’t bet on him securing some big money transfer to a French juggernaut one day? But that could, and perhaps should, be the end of his England aspirations. The only surprising aspect in all this is that we didn’t reach this point sooner.
Alex Sanderson, Sale’s head coach, suggested that Tuilagi wasn’t that sort of player. “I don’t think he went out there to make contact with the head or neck,” he said of an act that appeared to be dripping with intent.
“He’s never overtly aggressive,” Sanderson added. “He knows through time that he’s got that physicality in his back pocket.”
Sanderson was defending his player, as all coaches are programmed to do after such an incident. But he’s clearly wrong. I’m no psychologist, and I’d never wade into a debate concerning another man’s psyche, but Tuilagi’s record speaks to the sort of man that he is.
In 2011 he assaulted Chris Ashton on the field during that season’s Premiership semi-final between Leicester and Northampton (Tuilagi was playing for the Tigers at the time). In 2015 he was convicted of a violent incident with two female police officers and a taxi driver. At the time Tuilagi said, “I know as an England player the need to conduct myself as a good role model for the game. I am very disappointed because my actions have let so many people down and I can only hope for a future chance to prove myself again.”
These words sounded hollow when, in 2017, Tuilagi was axed from the England squad again after a boozy bender meant he arrived back at the team hotel drunk. Two years ago he was sent off the field for a no-arms tackle on Wales’ George North during a Six Nations encounter.
And yet there are many fans and pundits who believed, at least until last week, that Tuilagi was one of the first names on the England team sheet if fit. In fact, every time he was absent through yet another injury, English rugby went into meltdown, tumbling over itself as it scrambled to find a replacement at 12. They’ve tried natural 10s and natural 13s in that position but no one, it was argued, had what Tuilagi has.
That may be true but this debate should have ended in 2011 when he attacked Ashton in front of thousands of witnesses. But for whatever reason he has remained a beloved figure. I’ve never understood why and was once shocked that he was a guest on a popular rugby podcast that also included Ashton as a guest host.
How could anyone, from the producers to the host, have allowed such a scenario where both the victim and perpetrator of a crime shared a mic to chat about something as trivial as rugby? If Ashton wasn’t at least partially triggered he’s made of sterner stuff than most.
As an outsider it seems to me that Tuilagi embodies an internal schism within the English game. He is the counter argument to all talk of ‘rugby values’. He’s the toxic pragmatism that twists romantic ideals and wrestles them to the ground for the sake of an extra 20 metres on the pitch.
The England team might have once needed Tuilagi the player – though Ollie Lawrence’s display against Italy quietened that chat for a bit – but they’ve never needed Tuilagi the man. Now, thanks to his own stupidity, they might finally be rid of him.
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Retallick and whitelock still good enough to take on the best but they have to produce the quality several games in a row. Who do the Kiwis have after they and Scott b? At least the front row will be okay. Back row interesting coz Sam came and Ardie look sorta essential but can it work? Works better with brodies work rate but still.. what do you think nick. Can they get away without the backup locks?Go to comments
He’s probably right. The Boks are going to play like the Boks and that’s hard to shake but on saying that the Boks were done in Brighton and pressured by Japan in Japan. Dunno what tongas got in the front row but their loosies will be powerful and their back three very dangerous. Maybe Adam coleman at lock and sekope kepu up front?Go to comments