Leicester coach confident Manu Tuilagi will return to form
England centre is on verge of returning after sustaining knee injury at start of season
Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi has gone to great lengths to get his career back on track so much so he even visited a witch-doctor in Samoa earlier this year. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Those who believe Manu Tuilagi will never again be his old dominant force for club and country could swiftly be changing their tune according to those who have overseen his latest period of rehabilitation. The Leicester and England centre is on the verge of a return to action and his coaches believe it is his opponents who should be most apprehensive.
The 26-year-old Tuilagi has not played since the season’s opening weekend when he damaged a knee against Bath, having previously been sidelined by groin, hamstring and knee injuries. He even visited a witch-doctor in Samoa earlier this year in an effort to get his career back on track, and is now hoping to resume playing either this Sunday against Munster or against Saracens next weekend.
In the view of Leicester’s assistant coach Geordan Murphy, however, Tuilagi still has plenty of years of top-level rugby in him and, with fatherhood also beckoning next year, is due a change of luck when he pulls on a Tigers’ jersey again. “I’m a firm believer there’s only so much that can go wrong,” said Murphy, no stranger to injuries during his own illustrious career with Leicester and Ireland.
“If he can get it all right hopefully he can add time to the end of his career. People forget Manu is only a young man. He’s got another seven or eight years in him. Hopefully it’ll teach him to listen to his body and look after it.”
The remarkable impact an in-form Tuilagi can supply has not always been matched by the resilience of the ligaments supporting his powerful limbs, nor the smartness of some of his off-field decisions. His last start for England was three years ago although he did make one appearance off the replacements’ bench in 2016. In August he was sent home early from an England training camp following a late-night drinking foray with Sale’s Denny Solomona.
Murphy and Leicester’s director of rugby, Matt O’Connor, both believe, however, that Tuilagi will be fine if his body can cope with the initial shock of playing competitive rugby again and he successfully channels the frustration of recent months.
“It’s really tough for any player who gets a long-term injury,” acknowledged Murphy. “I always describe it as a tunnel. The first month when you’re on crutches and you’re hobbling around you just don’t see any light at the end of it. You just think: ‘How am I ever going to get back?’ It’s really nice when you hit the halfway point, can finally see that light and the improvement accelerates.”
Leicester, having been well beaten in Limerick, are also hoping their Australian centre Matt Toomua and the recently arrived Wallaby hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau will soon be involved alongside Tuilagi. “The medics are very, very happy with Manu’s knee,” insisted O’Connor, who described Tuilagi last week as “the best 13 in the world” when fully fit.
“They think he is well and truly over that and it is just the rigours of being back and playing. We would be a lot less concerned about his knee than the rest of him, just because he hasn’t done it.”
A potential space in the matchday 23 has opened up following the broken jaw suffered last Saturday by fullback Telusa Veainu, who also believes Tuilagi can help transform Leicester’s season. “He offers a whole different ball game, not only for us but the opposition as well,” stressed the Tongan international. “If they take their eye off him he’ll punish you. You have to mark up someone like Manu which opens up a lot of space out wide.”