British and Irish Lions 2013: Party over as Tiger Manu Tuilagi plays catch-up with Lions
Final duties of Leicester and Leinster stars means they must work even harder for their places
Wednesday 29 May 2013
Manu Tuilagi, one of 13 late arrivals who only linked up with the Lions tour party the day before departure due to domestic commitments, accepts that he faces having to play catch-up in the contest to secure a coveted starting place come the first Test against Australia.
Tuilagi is one of six Leicester players and another half dozen from Leinster who arrived at the team's pre-departure base in London on Sunday having been delayed by domestic finals the previous day. Rory Best, the Ulster hooker, only checked in hours before the 37-strong squad flew to Hong Kong.
The squad will have their first full training session today at the So Kon Po Recreation ground before the team for the opening match of the tour, against the Barbarians on Saturday, is announced by Warren Gatland tomorrow.
The starters, and most of the bench, are not expected to contain many of the Leinster and Leicester contingent, although Best or Tom Youngs will have to feature to cover for the Wales hooker Richard Hibbard, while props Dan Cole and Cian Healy could also be in the match-day squad. It means Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are likely to get first go in the centres with Tuilagi and Brian O'Driscoll, waiting until the first game in Australia – against Western Force in Perth next Wednesday – for their chance.
Centre may well prove the keenest contest for a starting place come the first Test in Brisbane on 22 June. O'Driscoll has admitted he will have to play catch-up on the Welsh duo, who have trained well over the last two weeks, and Tuilagi, too, knows there is no time to waste in what will be a tough competition for his No 13 shirt.
"No doubt about that," said Tuilagi. "The talent that we have in the team is massive. I came in yesterday and we watched training and it looked really sharp. That's the level you have to be. You just have to be on your game the whole time here, training and competing for places in the team.
"It's going to be hard, a massive challenge. We had a sit-down with Owen [Farrell], Jamie and a few of the boys and they told us what we need to know. We need to get up to speed and there are a few sore bodies from the weekend. For us boys just coming in we have to get our homework done, get up to speed with everything and be ready for our turn."
What the latecomers – Best apart, having finished on the losing side against Leinster – have in their favour, according to Gatland, is the boost from having been part of successful teams, and the Leicester contingent – Tuilagi plus the Youngs brothers, Cole, Tom Croft and Geoff Parling – took particular relish from their Premiership victory over Northampton.
"I am still happy and smiling from that," said Tuilagi. "It was a great way to end the season with Leicester. Losing the last two finals made it a lot better to win the third time."
There was a celebration on the team bus back home to Leicester afterwards followed by the pain of an early start the following morning to get back to London and Lions duties. The Samoan-born Tuilagi, the youngest of six rugby playing brothers, will be joined in Australia by his parents, with his father relishing the chance of seeing his son in a Lions shirt.
"Leading up to this year every time I spoke to him he was like 'when are the Lions getting picked?'" said Tuilagi.
"I had to say 'Dad that's not this year, it's next year'. When I found out I was in I couldn't wait to tell him."
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