Manu Tuilagi presents a clear and present danger to Ireland’s hopes
In his hour of need, Eddie Jones turns to talented if temperamental Leicester man
England’s Manu Tuilagi in action during the victory over Australia in November. He starts his first Six Nations game in over four years against Ireland. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. England rearrange their backline, squaring up like with like Aki facing inside centre Manu Tuilagi and the lighter, more deft Garry Ringrose eyeballing the talented Henry Slade outside.
In the coaches’ world of having to make bold decisions, Slade and Tuilagi line out for the first time together, Tuilagi starting in his first Six Nations game in more than four years. In that forced arrangement due to injury to Ben Te’o, there must be unknowns.
What is swirling in Eddie Jones’s mind is Ireland’s ability to jackal ball and robustly contest the breakdown. Tuilagi is no one-trick-pony say his admirers but he arrives with an ability to scatter bodies and carry like an auxiliary flanker in a game which is expected to be physically brutal.
If Tuilagi doesn’t carry heavy ball, Billy Vunipola will and if not the England number 8, then his loosehead prop brother, Mako, in the frontrow and if not him tighthead Kyle Sinckler. Jones will hope all four players will draw Ireland into a game they don’t want to play, not an easy thing to do anymore.
But Tuilagi’s promotion from Leicester brings an eye-catching force of nature to Dublin, a chequered past making his arrival straight from villain central casting. Aki and Johnny Sexton know what’s coming at them and, while the Ulster players expect more of what they got in two rounds of the European Champions Cup, it’s the first time Ringrose or his Connacht partner will have faced him at international level.
Jones expects Manu from heaven. But the question mark hanging over his pick is what is coursing through the head of a centre that last started a match for England against New Zealand in June 2014. Injury played a pivotal part in that, knee, thigh, pectoral and shoulder problems. But so did Leinster’s Stuart Lancaster, then coach of the England team.
In May 2015, Tuilagi was convicted of assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver, and fined €6,500. Lancaster subsequently announced that he would not be considered for selection until January 2016, thus missing the 2015 World Cup.
It came on the back of a series of indiscretions, some trivial others not. Tuilagi’s most endearing misdemeanour came in September 2013, when he was forced to issue an apology to then prime minister David Cameron after making a “bunny ears” sign behind his back during a visit by the Lions squad to Downing Street.
In the 2011 Rugby World Cup he broke regulations and wore a sponsored mouth guard before jumping off a ferry into Auckland harbour. Both actions drew fines. But it didn’t end and that same year he was given a five week suspension for repeatedly punching Chris Ashton, who is on the bench today for England.
In the summer of 2017, after rejoining the England squad after a series of injuries, he returned to the team hotel drunk with teammate Denny Solomona, and they were sent home by Jones.
Tuilagi was not selected in England’s squad for the 2018 Six Nations. But good coaches are forgiving and pragmatic and he came off the bench later that year to win his 28th cap in the victory over Australia.
England know the worth of the Samoan-born 27-year-old, who was almost deported from England in 2010 after he overstayed a holiday visa acquired six years previously. Local politicians in Leicester joined the chorus to let him stay. Now here he is, once again a red rose.
On the pitch he is always a threat and he scored a try against Ulster in Kingspan Stadium from 40 yards out in a typical rampaging run. He can break tackles and beat the gain line causing havoc in defences, especially coming from deep or on angled runs. It is what Jones and by extension Farrell set up for him to do. It is Tuilagi they want jamming up the front of an English cavalcade with runners on his tail lights.
“He’s a game-changer. Australia have got Israel Folau who can make something out of nothing and win you a game. Manu is that person for England,” said Leicester and England scrumhalf Ben Youngs.
“But we’ve got to be smart in how we use him. He’s going to attract defenders, so then we can either use him as a decoy or as a punch guy for us.”
His strengths are probably the most understood in world rugby. It is how to stop him using them that will concern Ireland.