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.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

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

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones