At his best, Manu Tuilagi is a true game-breaker in the number 13 jersey. At just 27-years-old, the Leicester centre should be in his absolute prime. He is not, and that’s a problem for Eddie Jones, even though he’ll keep faith in Tuilagi nonetheless.
The dejected look across Jones’ face as he revealed that the centre is once again sidelined through injury told the story. 2018’s Autumn Internationals were supposed to mark the much-anticipated return of Tuilagi to the England fold, after several injury blotted years. But as of yet, Jones has not been able to deploy Tuilagi from the start since taking over.
And yet again for this weekend’s match against Japan, a groin issue has robbed England of one of their truly word-class threats.
Possessing freakish athleticism for a man of his build, Tuilagi’s ability to breach contact is virtually unmatched across the rugby world. He is an underrated defensive tone-setter and breakdown operator, too….but only when fit. And that is testing the faith of Jones, and many England Rugby fans patience.
World Class – when fit and firing
Jones has shown patience with the centre, and it is perhaps a testament to how well-regarded Tuilagi is, that he remains firmly in Jones’ thoughts. Indeed, lesser players may have slipped away after transgressing, returning to the England team hotel drunk last August.
But Jones had kept the faith in Tuilagi, and it seemed it would pay dividends for England this Autumn, when Manu Tuilagi heard his name read out in the squad back in October. Finally, fit and firing – at somewhere close to his best for the Tigers – Manu Tuilagi came into the Autumn window injury-free.
Tuilagi had caught the eye, with a number of influential performances for Leicester, and in his 50-metre try against Newcastle showed a turn of pace and long-range speed that had not been sighted for a long while.
There had been glimpses over the last few years, but at the time, Tuilagi had strung together several games full of impact and lacking in errors. One minor injury came and went with just a solitary game missed – was it now Tuilagi time?
Injured again – the lingering story of Tuilagi’s career
His inclusion in Jones’ squad was inevitable, and with England looking to remodel their misfiring midfield, Tuilagi leaped into starting contention. Included on the bench for the first November International clash with South Africa, England’s great enigma seemed ready to return.
But sadly for fans, he did not.
A training injury put him out of the 23, with Chris Ashton back into the fold. That continued and saw Tuilagi out of the clash with the All Blacks (who he so magnificently tore asunder in 2012). The player must have been deeply upset at the untimely injury, after weeks of consistent starts.
But this week fans assumed, surely he would at least get a tune-up against Japan before the Australia game? No. it was announced Tuilagi would play no part against the Brave Blossoms. Although defence coach John Mitchell was quick to reassure fans that the centre would be in contention for next week’s game with Australia – but doubts remain on his participation.
Would anyone truly be surprised if Tuilagi’s does not recover in time for that game? Possibly, yet it might be that a 90% fit Tuilagi against Australia is better than an 80% fit Tuilagi playing Japan.
Further to the discussion over his inclusion in any playing squad is, if he is seen as solely an outside centre as Eddie Jones suggests, then, what is his role?
England have ‘plenty’ of centre options
There is an argument to be made that England (and Eddie Jones) are wasting their time. Tat Manu Tuilagi is too unreliable to persist with.
Henry Slade and Ben Te’o’s partnership shows signs of promise. And Jones will look at two more centre options, in Alex Lozowski and Jack Nowell against Japan.
There is, of course, Jonathan Joseph to return. The Bath man may be back playing before the turn of the year. So with ‘plenty’ of options, some wonder at the Manu Tuilagi place, in the group. That is highlighted further, with places in the Rugby World Cup squad limited, Jones may have a decision to make about Tuilagi’s fitness.
Using one of potentially only four centre places on Tuilagi is a gamble; such is his propensity for injury.
Of note, England’s training sessions are notoriously rigorous, and Jones could ill-afford a mid-World Cup injury. In saying that, some suggest that Tuilagi should have been withheld until the Six Nations for fear of a situation just like this.
Why Tuilagi’s World Cup place might be secure…
Ultimately, Manu Tuilagi – if fit – will be on the plane to Japan. He provides something that few England players do; an ability to make something out of nothing.
Winning the Rugby World Cup is the main goal for England Rugby, and players of Manu Tuilagi’s quality will be crucial if England are to do so. One would anticipate at the very least a ‘bench spot’ for Tuilagi; knowing the impact he can make on tired defenses.
The opening pool games are usually used to rotate and keep players fresh. The exact science of this is hard to judge, so the risk of selecting Manu Tuilagi ahead of men who can endure a month-long campaign, adds to the discussion.
But with England failing to exit their pool in 2015, winning all (if not two) pool games needs game breakers. So the unpredictable Tuilagi is an attractive option. So that will be a tantalizing thought for Eddie Jones.
In this writers mind, Eddie Jones has stuck with him for this very reason.
In the short-term, it is frustrating to see England without Tuilagi but, his potential importance to England Rugby cannot be understated.
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