Why Manu Tuilagi Is Likely to Be Key for England at the 2015 World Cup
England’s World Cup preparations begin in earnest when Stuart Lancaster convenes his squad of 45 in June.
That extended party will need to be cut down for the tournament, by which time players will have to have proved form and fitness to earn inclusion.
And there will be no player Lancaster will be more keen to see tick those boxes than Manu Tuilagi.
The Leicester Tigers powerhouse is in the throes of a long-running groin injury that has wrecked his season. The 23-year-old has missed almost six months of rugby and will not feature for the Tigers again this season, per BBC Sport.
He remains in with a chance of being fit to figure in England’s three warm up games, which comprise a rerun of the thrilling Six Nations finale against France at Twickenham on August 15 and a return in Paris, before taking on Ireland at home on September 5.
They begin their World Cup campaign against Fiji less than two weeks later.
It is crucial for England's chances that Tuilagi recovers and is fit to play in England's key games.
Let's assess why he is the man they need.
1. England's Match Winner
Above all other players, Tuilagi has proved in the Lancaster era that he is a genuine match-winner in his own right.
He scored in England’s 2012 win over France in Paris that virtually ensured Lancaster would get the job as head coach after his initial appointment in an interim capacity.
Then he scored one and made two more in an inspirational display that helped humble world champions New Zealand in that year’s autumn internationals.
In all ten games during which the centre has been on the scoresheet for England, they have only lost once.
That was in 2012 against Australia, when he also made more metres with the ball than anyone else in the team apart from Alex Goode, per ESPN.co.uk, who was playing full-back that day.
In total, he has scored 11 tries in 25 matches, a 44 per cent strike rate at Test level, which bears favourable comparison to midfield giants of the modern game, with only Will Greenwood recording a significantly better strike rate.
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2. He Can Play at No. 12
Tuilagi has done all his best work as a No. 13 for England, but the emergence of Jonathan Joseph this season has presented the scenario that, when fit, if Lancaster feels he has to pick Tuilagi, then No. 12 would be where he will play.
The doubters who question having the Leicester man in that shirt point to his distribution skills.
But this attribute has also been exposed as lacking quality in Luther Burrell’s armoury—the man who played No. 12 during the Six Nations.
If it is a choice between the two, Tuilagi’s superior tackle-busting strength wins out.
Indeed, after Joseph ripped Italy apart with two tries in the 2015 Six Nations, the issue was addressed by Lancaster, per Paul Rees’ discussion piece on the subject in the Guardian:
“Manu can certainly play at 12,” Lancaster said. “He has played there before for us. His role in attack is very much as a 12 in that he’s the guy who gets us across the gain line. Having someone of that size and presence at 12 in defence is not a bad thing either. He isn’t going to come back in the short term but it could be a potent combination.”
Lancaster would have preferred a kicking No. 12 to fill that slot, such as Billy Twelvetrees or Owen Farrell now that the Saracens man has been ousted from fly-half by George Ford’s continued progression.
But Rees also noted that Ma’a Nonu was shifted from No. 13 to 12 by the All Blacks and tasked with the job of improving these areas: "He was not renowned for playing with his head up but was told to work on his kicking, handling skills and vision. The outcome was the emergence of one of the most influential players in Test rugby in the last decade and Tuilagi would appear to be no less skilful."
Three warm-up games is hardly much time to transition to the standard Nonu has achieved, but Tuilagi’s record and impact on the team’s power is just too hard to ignore.
Furthermore, a tweak in planning can adjust to the lack of a kicking option at 12 when England need to exit their own danger zone by simply promoting Mike Brown to second receiver from full-back in those situations. The Harlequin has an atomic left foot.
3. Friends Reunited Could Prove Potent
Tuilagi and Joseph have appeared together twice in this 12/13 combination, during England’s tour of South Africa in 2012.
A patched-up team lost the first Test, and the pairing was given its debut in the second. It was another defeat, but they performed well in the final test of the tour to claim a draw.
What’s instructive is to look back at the second-Test pre-match piece written by Paul Ackford in The Telegraph. The former England second row wrote:
“Tuilagi clearly doesn’t give a damn about who he’s facing and where he’s playing, and why should he? He knows that he has the feet and the physicality to trouble the world’s finest. He demonstrated that in the first Test against the Boks. As for the slightly alarming fact that Tuilagi has only played at inside-centre a couple of time for Leicester, which translates to a couple of times in his life? “It’ll mean that I’ll get more ball and make more tackles.”
Joseph, Ackford also went on to write, had been described at the time by Mike Catt, as the next “Jeremy Guscott.”
Fast-forward three years and we find ourselves in the same situation, waiting to see just how dangerous a pairing this could be.
Joseph is once again being heralded as the next great, dazzling England centre—albeit he has reached this point via international exile, a move to Bath and finally flourishing in an England shirt this season—while Tuilagi’s injury has been the only thing stopping us from seeing them reunited sooner.
4. The Man the Others Fear
The final test for the case for Tuilagi is a simple one.
Ask players from the world’s top sides who they would pick out as a danger man in the English side, and the Tigers tyro will be the man they mention.
South African legend Bryan Habana proved the point at the end of March when he told ESPN.co.uk that the fourth brother of one of rugby’s most menacing families simply has to be in the side.
Following Jonathan Joseph's hugely impressive Six Nations, it would take a change of direction from the England management to displace him and Habana believes they could opt for a Tuilagi-Joseph combination at inside and outside centre.
"The combination of Ford, Joseph and Tuilagi would be impressive," Habana said. "I think Tuilagi's big injury crisis has been frustrating in terms of his growth and development. All the Tuilagi brothers aren't the smallest of animals in the world!"