Manu Tuilagi maintains his boyish grin as fans look through their fingers
The centre has been on the field for only 16 minutes of Eddie Jones’ 33 matches in charge
Manu Tuilagi during an England training session at Twickenham. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
As and when Manu Tuilagi comes off the England bench on Saturday you can be sure of two things: first, that his arrival is greeted by the loudest cheer of the match; second, that the first time he gets his hands on the ball there will be 80,000 people holding their collective breath.
For all the goodwill that comes his way, it is hard – and it has been for some time – to watch the Leicester centre without a mild sense of dread, to avoid looking through your fingers as he gallops towards defenders.
Undoubtedly there have been signs of a certain robustness this season – the try he scored from the halfway line against Newcastle springs to mind, as do a couple of bruising bursts against the Scarlets – but the will-he-won’t-he narrative that has continued all autumn only adds to the apprehension that comes with the anticipation.
Eddie Jones cannot afford to admit as much, for it is his job to instil a bulletproof confidence in his heavyweight centre but the England coach will be as relieved as anyone for Tuilagi to get a few more minutes under his belt in the Test arena against Australia without any adverse reaction to his latest groin problems.
“I am so pleased for Manu because he has really stuck at it,” said Jones, and to put his patience over Tuilagi into perspective, he has had him on the field for only 16 minutes of his 33 matches in charge. “It’s disheartening when you get little injuries that just stop you from playing. All we’re wanting is for him to do the basics well – good straight, hard running, good hard, low tackling and work off the ball.”
For all of his injury setbacks, Tuilagi seems to handle them remarkably well. It is easy to imagine each one driving the 27-year-old further into despair but that is not in keeping with his persona around the England camp this month. Their Bagshot base is the kind of place where time can often stand still but Tuilagi has been keeping his teammates entertained at the pool table – “He plays rubbish in the morning then takes everyone’s money at night!” Owen Farrell said – and running a coffee shop from his bedroom.
“He’s mixed really well socially, he’s got a coffee shop, he’s the king of the pool table, he’s trained really hard and kept a smile on his face,” Jones said. “He’s been a real joy to have around the team.”
If he has been a hit off the field, however, Jones’s eyes light up at the idea of a backline featuring Tuilagi, Ben Te’o and Joe Cokanasiga, who wins his second cap. “We have never had that before. So it’s exciting.”
It hardly needs saying Tuilagi is a different player to the wrecking ball that ransacked the All Blacks in 2012 but that match remains at the forefront of Jones’s mind and it was illuminating to watch the highlights recently – inescapable as they were before kick-off when New Zealand were back in town this month. What struck most was just how young Tuilagi looked: the boyish grin when facing the haka, the rat tail, the line-break, the intercept and the exhausted run to the corner (not the posts, much to Mike Brown’s annoyance).
Six years on and the same grin returned this week. “He just smiled,” said Jones, recalling Tuilagi’s reaction to being part of Saturday’s squad, while his Leicester teammate Ben Youngs added: “Manu’s like an excited kid at the best of times, so this is no different. He’s certainly very excited. He’s had to be really patient. He’s trained really well. I’m just so pleased to see him out there. He’s got a big grin on his face, like a Cheshire cat.”
It is in hope rather than expectation it remains on his face at the final whistle.