Manu Tuilagi has consistently been England’s best player since he burst on the international scene just prior to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. He is England’s most powerful runner, and the one opposition defences worry about most.
However, where he should play in the England team has been brought into question over the past year. Moreover, the decision to move Tuilagi away from the centre and onto the wing risks limiting his impact and disrupting the balance of the team.
The calls to switch Tuilagi’s role have come from some of the most respected figures in the game. In particular, 2003 World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward has been leading the cries for Tuilagi to change position. Writing in his column in The Daily Mail, Woodward outlined his preferred back division:
Assuming no injuries, I would bring Danny Care and Owen Farrell in at half-back, pair Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell at centre and move Manu Tuilagi to the left wing.
Meanwhile, England head coach Stuart Lancaster, who was quick to highlight that Tuilagi played plenty of under-20s rugby on the wing, explained to BBC Radio 5 Live that:
I always wanted in the back line a balance of pace, power, footballers and people who can distribute as well. We need to find out about these players. I'd rather find out now than 12 months from the World Cup and it's an exciting back line, there's no doubt about it.
But under-20s rugby is a far cry from the Test arena, and Tuilagi’s record of 11 tries in 23 outings from the centre is excellent.
Due to the form of Luther Burrell, and Billy Twelvetrees slowly improving as an international No. 12, the temptation is to move Tuilagi to the back three to accommodate these two or Kyle Eastmond, who impressed against the All Blacks last Saturday. But this temptation should have been wholeheartedly resisted by the England management. It will weaken England defensively, and it is not a viable long-term solution.
One of Tuilagi’s key roles in the team is as a midfield battering ram. More specifically, he is often used off set-piece ball to get England over the gain line. Whilst this would still be possible from the wing, it means that England would be without a man out wide for the subsequent attacking phase, when England would hope to have quick ball to exploit.
Despite a frame weighing 112 kilograms (17st 8lb), Tuilagi is quick for a centre, but he will lose foot races with international wingers such as New Zealand’s Julian Savea. Tuilagi would need to drop a lot of weight to play well on the wing, but this would entail a loss of strength and power, which is Tuilagi’s key asset.
Defensively, Tuilagi will also be targeted in the back three. Against New Zealand, who use the kick and chase to such good effect, playing Tuilagi on the wing is a serious gamble. Tuilagi would be strong from the wing going forward, but going backwards his inexperience could be exploited.
Neither is Tuilagi a strong kicker. New Zealand and other teams will kick to him, hoping to produce a mistake under the high ball, or a weak return kick. In short, Tuilagi will be a misfit in defence.
Lancaster can talk about a long-term vision in time for the 2015 World Cup, but if the tactic is unlikely to be good enough against the best in the world, then it should be discarded.
Whilst the idea of getting all of England’s most influential players on the field at once would suggest that Tuilagi should move to the wing, such a change will severely weaken England defensively.
This England team is built around a core team ethic and strong defence, where the sum is much greater than the parts. England should look to retain team chemistry instead of this unduly individualistic approach.