Le Crunch time for Manu Tuilagi with Lions on the line
Heineken Cup clash with Toulon's Bastereaud offers Leicester giant a perfect chance to impress
The last time Manu Tuilagi and Mathieu Bastareaud smashed into each other, playing for England and France respectively seven weeks ago, Jerry Guscott, who preferred to run around such large objects in his playing days, described it as "hard rubber against hard rubber… boingggggg". It gave the collision a cartoon-like quality, but the reprise between the outsized outside-centres when Toulon host Leicester in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in the south of France today is just one element in what might be a seriously classic match.
The tie offers almost everything you could ask for on a rugby field. There is youth and experience: the nine players aged 30 or over in the Toulon XV, including seven members of the pack plus Matt Giteau and England's beloved Jonny Wilkinson, may just make the galacticos of rugby vulnerable to a high tempo. There will be granite-hard scrums and mauls fringed by flankers of speed, muscle and grace in Steffon Armitage, Tom Croft and Julian Salvi; half-backs of wit and savvy (though not Freddy Michalak, the injured Toulon No 9); lesser-known wings out to make their name; and Wilkinson's former Newcastle team-mate Toby Flood captaining Leicester opposite his long-time mentor.
As for Tuilagi, the Samoan-born 21-year-old, he waits confidently, like a boxer ticking the minutes down to the first bell. He watched Leicester's forwards train on Tuesday and believed he saw the same intensity – "smashing the shit out of each other" – that they brought to last week's 36-8 subjugation of Northampton. His own contribution to that record league win for the Tigers at Franklin's Gardens was two tries and a blistering fusillade of irresistible runs.
"Manu is up there with the best Australian centres I've played with," said Salvi, Leicester's Australian openside flanker whose race to the breakdown with Armitage will be another crucial head-to-head. "He's like Stirling Mortlock as a genuine, hard, ball-carrying No 13, but also like Adam Ashley-Cooper in the looser aspects." This high praise is bound to res- onate with Warren Gatland, the Lions coach soon to name his squad for the summer tour to Wallaby land. "The Lions is a dream for any player," Tuilagi said, but with an easy air that suggested failing to be selected was not something disturbing his slumber.
"I have been tackled a lot harder," Tuilagi said of his Six Nations meeting with Bastareaud at Twickenham on 23 February. "He is a massive unit, but that is what you look forward to when you play teams like this."
A look back at England's win reveals the 23rd-minute tackle when Bastareaud lined up Tuilagi for a statement of intent. The Frenchman went chest-high, he had a go at the waist, the thighs and lastly the ankles, but Tuilagi shrugged him off and charged on. (It must be like grabbing a large slab of butter moving with the force of a juggernaut; Northampton's Tom May suffered similar treatment eight days ago). Thomas Castaignède, another gifted back who preferred mind over matter, observed of Tuilagi: "I've never seen anyone do things like this to Bastareaud." And of Bastareaud: "His main issue is when he goes into contact, he loses the ball most of the time."
The principal question mark over Tuilagi is his range of distribution, and as for kicking… well, he doesn't. But his try-count of 28 in 77 appearances for club and country comfortably eclipses Bastareaud's 25 in 165, including the four seasons at Stade Français before he joined Toulon two years ago. Salvi, for one, reckons there is no point thinking of Tuilagi in any other position, even if Gatland, perhaps mindful of accommodating Brian O'Driscoll, has touted the youngster as an inside- centre and wing.
Tuilagi said he learnt "accuracy and repetition" from Wilkinson when they trained with England, and he recalled their first meeting with awed respect – "He said, 'I'm Jonny, nice to meet you,' and I thought, 'Of course I know who you are'" – while promising the venerable No 10 would be a target for a hit today like anyone else.
Tuilagi is as hungry to improve as he was sated spiritually as a devout Catholic by giving up eating meat for the 40 days of Lent. He broke the fast with a bacon sandwich on Easter Day, and is ready today for the customary look to the heavens and kiss of the cross on his wristband if he escapes Toulon's clutches to inspire an underdog victory.
"I just thank God for the strength to play the game, mentally and physically," said Tuilagi.
The man mountains
Manu Samoa Tuilagi
Born: 18 May 1991
Measurements: 6ft 0in, 17st 4lb
For England: Appearances 21; tries 10
For Leicester (all competitions): Appearances 56; tries 18
Heineken Cup: Appearances 11; tries 5 (all for Leicester)
Born: 17 September 1988
Measurements: 6ft 0in, 18st 12lb.
For France: Appearances 14; tries 2
For Toulon (all competitions): Appearances 52; tries 3
Heineken Cup: Appearances 19; tries 2 (for Toulon and Stade Français)
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