Most international centres would descend into a blind panic if their international coach decided they had spent their entire careers wearing the wrong number, but mere digits mean precious little to Manu Tuilagi. The human bowling ball finally rolled back into England training on Tuesdat after endless months of orthopaedic misery and immediately pronounced himself ready – and, indeed, able – to switch midfield positions on the say-so of the red-rose boss Eddie Jones.
Last week, Jones’ plans for the Leicester midfielder became crystal clear. “I’ll tell you what Manu isn’t, and that’s a No 13,” he said, thereby questioning the positional logic underpinning Tuilagi’s entire representative career to date. “He’s an inside centre, not an outside centre. And I think he can be a world-class inside centre.”
If this development alarmed the Samoan-born back, or even surprised him, he made a convincing job of disguising it. “I’ve had a chat with Eddie about my best position, but it’s just numbers in the end,” he said. “Inside and outside? They’re different, but they’re very similar. At the set pieces, you can switch depending on who the opposition have on the field. In phase play, it’s a matter of who gets there first.”
Tuilagi last played for England on the summer tour of New Zealand in 2014: since then, he has struggled to see off a deep-seated groin injury that, in his darker moments, made him fear for his career. “You realise how special it is, playing professional sport, when you’re not involved,” he said. “It’s not really a job, doing what you love. Sometimes, you take it for granted.
“Was the injury painful? Yes, very. Especially early on, when I’d be in a deep sleep, move slightly and wake up immediately. And it was hard for me mentally. When you’re injured you tend to spend longer at the club than anyone else – you come in earlier, you leave later – yet it seems like you’re not part of the team. They’re outside training, or upstairs in the gym. You’re downstairs in the rehab room.
“The important thing is to have good people around you and I had that: good people at the club and, of course, my family. My parents came over to England for Christmas and, as it’s a long way back home, I kept them here for a while. That really helped. So did talking to Mathew Tait [a Leicester clubmate and one of his predecessors in the England midfield], who had suffered a similar injury. Seeing him back to full fitness was one of the things that kept me going.”
This weekend, Tuilagi will accumulate some much needed game time by playing for the Midlanders in an important Premiership match against Exeter at Welford Road. A number of other front-line personnel – the Saracens full-back Alex Goode and hooker Jamie George, the Northampton prop Paul Hill and lock Courtney Lawes – have also been made available for club duty after hanging around on the England bench.
Goode and George are certain to be involved against Wales at Twickenham in 10 days’ time, assuming they come through this weekend’s business in one piece. Whether Tuilagi joins them on the red-rose replacement roster is an open question, but there is at least a possibility of him being fast-tracked into the match-day squad. Jones thinks he may have 20 minutes of Test-level rugby in his legs, and in a tight game, those 20 minutes could be very valuable indeed.
“I feel good,” Tuilagi said, when asked to assess his own fitness. “Every time I set foot on the playing field, I’m smiling. There’s definitely a good feeling around the camp and it’s brilliant to be back in an England shirt, even if it’s just the training kit. The shirt fits me. You don’t want to be wearing something that’s too tight, do you?”
For all the positivity, there was some negative news for England. Josh Beaumont, the Sale No 8 who was selected by Jones in the wider Six Nations squad but has yet to be capped, will not play again this season. The son of the Rugby Football Union chairman Bill suffered a shoulder dislocation while on club duty last month.