With the business end of the Aviva Premiership on the horizon followed by a tour down under, we’re looking at a busy couple of months for Leicester Tigers & England centre Manu Tuilagi. After a few impressive performances for Tigers after returning from injury, he was thrust back into an England shirt in round 4 of the RBS Six Nations against Wales, playing reasonably well off the bench as well as making that tackle on George North to end the game and secure English victory. Let’s look at what may be upcoming for Leicester’s party piece powerhouse.
He is not England’s best 13
In fact, England coach Eddie Jones doesn’t believe Tuilagi is a 13 at all, instead preferring him at inside centre. It makes sense when you consider who is in the talent pool at either position. At outside centre you look at players like Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade or Elliot Daly to fill the 13 shirt for England for the upcoming summer tour against Australia. I do not believe Tuilagi to be a better outside centre than any of these players. If Jones were to pick Tuilagi over Joseph, Slade or Daly, it would almost certainly hinder the delivery to the back three that proved devastating for England during this year’s Six Nations campaign.
So, looking at 12, the player pool includes Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Sam Hill and Luther Burrell. While Hill and Burrell both look impressive for their respective clubs (Hill especially), neither have had the international experience necessary to go down to Australia and pull a series win from their hindquarters. My opinions of Owen Farrell are well documented in my first draft of a 2017 Lions team, available here. Of course, Farrell is also a fly half who currently controls England’s kicking duties, so Farrell would have to look toward displacing his inside man, George Ford, from the England 10 shirt or accept a spot on the bench.
Enter Tuilagi. He runs hard. He hits harder. He is the perfect addition to an Eddie Jones side that boasts impressive power running in the forwards, while sometimes lacking that immediate go-forward outside 10. I do believe that when fully fit, Tuilagi will become England’s first choice inside centre, with Sam Hill as a more than solid deputy.
He is on daft money
Tuilagi is one of the highest paid players currently in the Aviva Premiership since he signed a contract extension with Leicester in December. Even when available to play, I’m unsure of his ability to live up to this standard. If he’s being paid like the best player in the league, he has to prove it. Part of that is about staying healthy, but he also has to start putting dominant performances over the top players in his position. Given the outstanding form for Chiefs of Sam Hill, as well as the recent positive performance of a 10/12 combination of Freddy Burns and Owen Williams in Leicester, there will be a lot of pressure on the centre to perform at what is a very competitive position in English rugby.
He won’t necessarily travel to New Zealand next year
Right now, I have Tuilagi in my books as injury cover for the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017. If we’re picking two players from either centre position he wouldn’t be my first choice to make the journey. At 12 I can’t see the coaching staff looking further than Jamie Roberts and Robbie Henshaw given the quality they have shown through their respective Six Nations campaigns, Henshaw in particular being a shining light for what was a bitterly disappointing Irish campaign.
Looking further outside, I can’t see him making it as a quality 13. Even if you ignore the quality of Mark Bennett for Scotland, I don’t think he’ll outperform either of the three aforementioned outside centres (Joseph, Daly, Slade) and that’s before you bring into contention Jonathan Davies (who I have as a certainty to make the journey south barring injury) or Ireland’s Jared Payne. I have Jonathan Davies to travel with any one of the English outside centres, whichever starts for England in the 2017 Six Nations tournament. The main reason I can see these players travelling instead of Tuilagi is because of their distribution – the back three talent pool that the Lions coaches will have to choose from is simply immense. If they can’t get the ball outside 13 then all that talent will go to waste. Wasting that kind of talent when you’re playing against the best team in the world simply isn’t an option.
Given the quality on show by these players this year, Tuilagi will have to really start not just matching his peers but outperforming massively should he want to go on tour with the Lions. It is for these reasons I wouldn’t take him on tour, but the coaching staff should keep hold of his phone number just in case.
It’s been a tough season for Manu Tuilagi, missing the Rugby World Cup through off-field issues putting him out of contention, followed by an injury that Leicester Tigers Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill still considers him not fully fit from. It is always worth remembering that this powerhouse centre still has massive upside potential. Look for him to bounce back from these setbacks, as he will have to hit a gear previously unseen if he hopes to maximise his playing time for representative sides.