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The end of the road for Manu Tuilagi

By Daniel Gallan
NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Manu Tuilagi of Sale Sharks looks dejected after being red carded and sent off by referee Ian Tempest during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Northampton Saints and Sale Sharks at Franklin's Gardens on February 18, 2023 in Northampton, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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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Comments

13 Comments
J
Joseph 479 days ago

Violent thug. Pity he won't be around - I'd have liked to see Eben get hold of him.

r
robespierre 479 days ago

Thugilagi

P
Poe 479 days ago

English media idolized him, all through his on off career.

L
Lloydy 479 days ago

Absolute garbage article.

s
steve 480 days ago

An utterly ill judged hatchet job written purely to stoke debate, but a debate’s only worth having if grounded in some realism. Have never been biggest fan of our reliance on tuilagi and consequent struggles when he’s predictably injured etc, but he’s always given his all for England and just got this wrong - was clearly an attempted fend where he misjudged height and distance. He should still be big part of our plans going forward as long as he’s fit and we are ensuring we have tested alternatives. Don’t lower yourselves to this sort of sensationalist, trashy writing.

R
Roy 480 days ago

This is just a hack piece. He led with his arm to fend away, whilst he was being tackled, and just got it completely wrong. He was trying to be aggressive and paid the price. Fine,. Justified red card and move on.

Let's be honest. England have picked him in the past because he offers them something no other centre does. Not because they were "giving him chances". In fact, they often rushed him back in when what he needed was more time at club level where his minutes could be managed. England probably made his injury situation worse. But he never said no.

It's time to look at other options, but he's never done anything else than give 100% for his country, even when his body wasn't up to it. He played on the edge, it what made him so good. And now the laws have changed, and he is the type of player that will struggle to adapt the most, because he played right on the edge.

But if he stays fit, having Manu in the squad is not a bad thing. I so hope he's not first choice, but if he stays fit, he'll do a job when called on, and we don't have too many big ball carriers in the centres. Having Dan Kelly and Ollie Lawrence with a fit Manu in reserve, to be called into the squad because of injuries, is not a bad situation to be in.

i
isaac 480 days ago

Wow... owen Farrell tackles are even worse and yet nobody points a finger......really pathetic to pick on a player

J
James 480 days ago

Wow, I mean no doubt he has a poor disciplinary record and not one of the games role models off pitch either but this seems an over the top attack to be asking for him to be banished from podcasts or not revered by fans. I mean should rugby pass be employing big Jim due to his antics as a player, or Andy Powell for drunk driving a golf caddy. Fact is he’s preformed outstandingly for England during periods as a player and was a game changer. But they do need to move on due to ill reliability through injury or discipline

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