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The 'sweet spot' that Sale and England have found for Manu Tuilagi

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Sale have confirmed that their S&C dealings with England regarding the fitness and well-being of Manu Tuilagi haven’t changed despite the dismissal of Eddie Jones as head coach and the reported departure of Jon Clarke, the national team’s head of S&C. The Australian and the fitness coach visited Carrington last May to find a solution to the long-running issues that both club and country were having in keeping midfield powerhouse Tuilagi available for selection.

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He had damaged a hamstring when scoring for England in November 2021 against the Springboks at Twickenham and his Test comeback was ruined when forced to pull out of the last February’s Guinness Six Nations match versus Wales just hours after he has been named in the starting XV. A miserable season for Tuliagi then ended with him skipping the July tour to Australia to have a knee operation.

However, his availability rate has so far soared in 2022/23. This Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup start at Ulster will be Tuilagi’s tenth of this season for Sale – nine starts were all he managed in the whole of last term with the club – while he already has one England cap more this season – four – than he managed last season.

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“Yeah, we have continued on the way it has been,” said Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, when asked by RugbyPass if the same monitoring of Tuilagi has continued in recent weeks despite the major shake-up of the England staff with Steve Borthwick now in charge.

“We are actually finding Manu in his most robust form this season, aren’t we? We do manage his minutes on the field. Like, we took him off at the weekend (versus Toulouse). He is playing every weekend, it’s a really good sign that we are finding the sweet spot for him.”

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Tuilagi has currently played 565 minutes for Sale midway through this season compared to 609 across the whole of last season, and Sanderson added that the player is full of the joys of life being injure-free and being able to regularly play. “He is the last one in after the games,” he said, referencing Tuilagi’s frequent post-game time spent with the supporters.

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“He is great for the club, brilliant for the lads. He is all of that and a brilliant player. It’s funny how we listed that (playing) quality as his last in terms of priorities. It is in terms of when you talk about Manu.”

How does Tuilagi feel about heading into next week’s five-day England camp at Pennyhill under new boss Borthwick? “I haven’t spoken too much about next week with him. He is one of the people that I don’t think will get distracted by the bigger stage. He is super chilled,” remarked Sanderson.

“He had his towel around his waist making cups of coffee for about an hour and a half on Tuesday afternoon. He was going to go and jump into the recovery pool and said, ‘I’ll just have a coffee’.

“He ended up swanning around the lockdown bar semi-naked in a kind of Samoan outfit with a towel around his waist making flat whites. That’s Manu on a daily basis. It’s another day in the life, ain’t it, for him. He has taken it [England selection] in his stride.”

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It was in September, before the 2022/23 season began, that Sanderson outlined his optimism for the fitness of Tuilagi thanks to the greater combined approach being taken by Sale and England. “It’s nothing dissimilar to how we got him into decent shape last time,” he explained at that time.

“It has just been a more gradual progression of his loading, constant vigilance on his weight. I’d say we are hyper-sensitive to the amount of sprint metres he does, having a greater understanding of what breaks him, so (it’s about) keeping him under that threshold. I really am (confident).

I have got a good relationship with Eddie. He’s no fool, Eddie, we know that, he is a very intelligent man. I say we as in us and then and our relationship and I don’t think we’d want to repeat any of the mistakes of the past. It’s on us and them together to work out a plan and a loading system for him that keeps him on the field and gets him to that World Cup.”

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