British and Irish Lions 2013: Manu Tuilagi thrown in at the deep end on his debut

Leicester star to play in less familiar No 12 role as support grows for Jonny Wilkinson call-up

Perth

The last time the British and Irish Lions played in Western Australia, a dozen years ago, they made the peculiar decision to cast an outside centre as brilliant as Brian O'Driscoll in the unfamiliar role of full-back – an experience the Irishman enjoyed so much, he has never shown the slightest interest in repeating it. Tomorrow, in the same rugby backwater, his midfield partner will be the one playing out of position. It remains to be seen whether the great man has any more fun this time.

Manu Tuilagi's first Lions appearance will be in the No 12 shirt and while this is not a complete surprise – when Warren Gatland, the head coach, selected only one specialist inside centre in Jamie Roberts, it was obvious that someone would have to make do and mend – it is something of a calculated risk. The human bowling ball's flirtation with the position against South Africa last summer never had the look of permanence about it, and while he loses nothing to Roberts in terms of physical power, he is hardly a creative genius armed with a siege-gun kicking game. If it goes wrong, O'Driscoll may not receive a pass and be given nothing to chase.

O'Driscoll knows what it is to confront the Samoa-born Tuilagi and his special brand of South Seas-style scattergun rugby, and had a wry smile on his face when asked if he might find life easier being on the same side for once. "Wherever Manu goes, he creates holes," the Dubliner said. "Actually, I think he has a really good range to his game: people see his strong ball-carrying and his power in contact, but he has other skills that don't receive the credit they deserve. Where he runs, I'll be following."

Tuilagi then played his part in the mutual appreciation game, suggesting that O'Driscoll would be the man doing the leading. "Me following him? I reckon it will be the other way round," remarked the Leicester man. "He's the legend. I remember his famous try against the Wallabies on the 2001 Lions tour. Whatever he says during this game, I'll be like… yeah."

If Gatland is viewing Tuilagi as a genuine alternative to Roberts for the inside-centre role come the Test matches – for all Owen Farrell's decision-making frailties against the Barbarians in Hong Kong, he remains a pure outside-half in the coach's eyes – O'Driscoll's status as senior Lion and beating heart of the squad means he is just a couple of decent performances away from nailing down a starting place against the Wallabies. Listening to him yesterday, it was clear that the notion of playing midweek back-up to excellent Welsh centre Jonathan Davies had not occurred to him.

"People talk about the try I scored in the Brisbane Test back in '01," he said, having been reminded for the umpteenth time of his grandest statement in a Lions shirt. "But people also talk of the ferocity of the second Test against the Springboks in 2009, and of what happened to us in New Zealand in 2005." In other words, it has not all been wine and roses. Three Test series and three defeats? We really should be talking vinegar and thorns.

"None of us in this squad has won a series as a Lion," O'Driscoll emphasised to his audience. "I haven't lost any of the buzz about pulling on the shirt, but it's one thing doing that and another thing doing what we're here to do. We have to build our levels of ruthlessness. We have to make ourselves difficult to beat."

When he takes charge against Western Force in Perth, he will lead one of the most Irish-heavy sides in recent Lions memory: more than half the starting line-up will be from the Emerald Isle, including four of the pack – the prop Cian Healy, the hooker Rory Best, the flanker Sean O'Brien and the No 8 Jamie Heaslip – and both half-backs in Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.

Talking of the J-word, there is likely to be a renewed surge of support for a Jonny Wilkinson call-up as a result of Gatland's latest bulletin on his walking wounded. While O'Brien has been passed fit following a knee injury, the tour captain Sam Warburton is still struggling with a more serious version of the same issue. (Gatland expects him to be fit for the weekend meeting with Queensland Reds in Brisbane. If he fails to make that date, the Wales flanker's position in the squad will be a matter for serious debate.)

However, the principal medical concern right now is Rob Kearney. The Irish full-back, such an impressive contributor in South Africa four years ago, is not responding to treatment for a torn hamstring and is moving closer by the day to an early flight home. Should the worst come to the worst, Gatland will find himself under significant public pressure to send for Wilkinson rather than a like-for-like replacement.

Having finally completed a 10-month tour of duty with the reigning European champions Toulon – he missed out on a major double when he and his colleagues lost to Castres in last weekend's French Top 14 championship final – the World Cup-winning stand-off is now available to Gatland.

And while the coach believes him to be ill-suited to managing the kind of attacking game he wants his Lions to play, Wilkinson's big-match experience and ability to close out tight contests with the boot may yet play a part in the tour hierarchy's thinking.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week