England will field an unchanged starting line-up for this weekend’s curtain-down Six Nations meeting with Italy in Rome – why wouldn’t they, having put the reigning champions from Wales back in their box in such energetic style at Twickenham two days ago? But there may just be a change on the bench, with seven of the existing replacements squeezing up to make room for the unusually substantial figure of Manu Tuilagi.
The human bowling ball from Leicester has not featured for his country since the horrible defeat by Wales this time last year, but he has made a full recovery from the complicated pectoral injury he suffered on club duty at the start of the season and will, by the end of the week, have a full fortnight of Red Rose training behind him.
Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, has not made a firm decision on recalling the Lions outside centre to the match-day squad – the first selection meeting with his fellow coaches was not taking place until yesterday evening – but the move will certainly be up for discussion.
“It would be hard to change the starting XV on the back of that performance against Wales, but Manu is a squad option,” Lancaster said yesterday. “He had very little training time with us ahead of last weekend’s game, but we’d be more comfortable bringing him in for this one and if we choose to go down that road, we’d look to him to make an impact off the bench. He could certainly cover wing as well as midfield, with Jack Nowell and Jonny May [the current first-choice wings] able to cover full-back.”
That last comment suggested that Alex Goode would be favourite to give way – a tough call on the Saracens full-back, but an understandable one. With Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell looking ever more comfortable in the centre positions – between them, they offer the full range of midfield virtues, as they started to show against the Ireland pairing of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll and then confirmed against the Welsh axis of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies – the reappearance of the Samoan-born back in the No 13 position is not quite as urgent as it seemed a few short weeks ago. The intrigue surrounds Tuilagi’s potential on the wing.
Twelve months ago, the man most talked about was the captain Chris Robshaw – for wholly negative reasons. With the Wales coach Warren Gatland publicly ruling the Harlequins flanker out of British and Irish Lions contention at an alarmingly early stage – Gatland did not consider the Englishman to be a specialist breakaway forward – and results going against him at club and international level, Robshaw suffered repeated blows and ended the season in a downbeat mood. When Matt Kvesic, his principal rival for the No 7 shirt, performed strongly on the Red Rose trip to Argentina in June, some predicted that Robshaw would struggle to hang on to the captaincy and might even lose his place in the side.
Yesterday, Lancaster seized the opportunity to give his rejuvenated skipper a major mention in dispatches. “Chris was our top tackler against Wales, and our top carrier too,” he said. “Again. It takes some doing to register those statistics as often as he does. When you look at his contributions as a footballer – his contribution to Danny Care’s try against Ireland, the deftness of his work against Wales – it’s clear that he’s growing into a rounded player with great balance to his game.
“The most important thing we did was to leave him off the Argentina tour and give him a proper break. He came back refreshed and it shows.”
Robshaw has been a crucial figure in restoring the national team’s pride in itself after a miserable fall from grace that culminated in the abject miseries of the 2011 World Cup campaign. Who says so, apart from Lancaster? Tom Wood, his fellow back-rower, for one. “First and foremost,” said the man who would, but for Robshaw, be leading the team, “he’s a really good guy, humble and hard-working, and that makes him easy to follow. He’s not one for Churchillian speeches. He says what needs saying in plain terms and there’s a calmness about him now. I think he’s been exceptional.”