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What Tuilagi said when England told him he would start on the wing

By Liam Heagney

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Saturday will be a huge moment in the lengthy England career of Manu Tuilagi. Only once in his previous 38 starts for his country since 2011 has the 30-year-old started on the wing, but the midfielder regular has now been chosen to wear the No14 shirt against the Wallabies. It is seven years since he last did so, a narrow defeat for England away to the All Blacks in 2014 in Dunedin. 

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However, the ambition of Eddie Jones to pair rookie Marcus Smith with skipper Owen Farrell in the ten/twelve channel, along with keeping Henry Slade in the 13 channel, has resulted in the England coach reaching a surprise compromise in order to keep Tuilagi in the starting line-up. 

It was just last weekend against Tonga when Tuilagi impressed in the twelve channel, his midfield partnership with Slade impressively purring to ensure there were no major dramas about the emergency selection of rookie George Furbank as the starting ten due to the unavailability of the isolated Farrell and the under-prepared Smith who hadn’t trained fully until the Friday.    

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Telling Tuilagi about his ‘new’ role then must have made for an interesting conversation between him and Jones? “He said, ‘Mate I will play anywhere. Where do you want me to play?’

“Manu has said himself he has got the increased capacity to do repeat efforts and that is what has really impressed us about him, his desire at the moment I don’t think I have ever seen it higher and his ability to play centre or wing for us is an added bonus we have got. 

“We have got two great centres in Owen and Henry who can both find space and both can deliver a pass and the idea is we have got people like Manu and Jonny May, one with power, one with pace, Freddie Steward out the back, he has got great aerial skills, we feel like it is a really good balanced backline.”

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Jones explained that the ability of players to be flexible about their position is increasingly important in the modern game where the majority of play involves unstructured possession. “The fluidity of the game demands that. We get 40 per cent set-piece structured and 60 per cent unstructured possession so in that 60 per cent unstructured players are in five million different scenarios.

“So the ability to fill a role, to have the awareness to either play close to the ball or away from the ball is just so important. If the game keeps getting quicker, as World Rugby wants at the moment, I foresee there will be more fluidity in the game, particularly in the unstructured and therefore players who are adaptable are going to be so important.”

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