Six Nations 2014: Manu Tuilagi nearing return to fray but Stuart Lancaster's focus is on beating Wales
England coach has 'learned lessons' from last year's defeat
Manu Tuilagi has not set foot on the field of play since last September, but it was a mark of the human bowling ball's star quality that he should be the talk of the town in his chosen sport. In two sports, to be precise.
While Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, was talking enthusiastically about the Leicester centre's imminent reappearance in the red-rose training camp, Tuilagi himself was dismissing speculation about a possible cross-code switch to rugby league - a move now known in the trade as a "reverse Burgess".
After three weeks of feverish debate about the short-term international prospects of Sam Burgess, who will turn his back on the 13-man game this autumn in favour of a new career in the 15-man version, the Samoa-born midfielder described as "utter rubbish" rumours that he might be considering a shift in the opposite direction by joining the Super League club Salford Red Devils.
This seemed clear enough, and after Simon Cohen, the Leicester chief executive, suggested that Salford's chances of affording the transfer fee depended on them being taken over by Bill Gates, the subject had about as much life left in it as Monty Python's parrot.
There seemed more chance of England throwing Tuilagi straight back into their starting line-up for the big Six Nations meeting with Wales on Sunday week - and as Lancaster indicated, this was not about to happen.
"It would," said the coach, "be a very big ask", which, roughly translated from his native Cumbrian, meant "not a cat's hope in hell". All the same, Lancaster expressed considerable relief that Tuilagi was finally back in some kind of rugby shape after a five-month recovery from a chest injury.
Together with Marland Yarde, the London Irish wing who forced his way into England's starting line-up before Christmas then broke down with orthopaedic hassles of his own, Tuilagi will feature in this weekend's Premiership programme before being reacquainted with the Test elite on Monday. Both men will make the cut for the three-Test series against the All Blacks in June, assuming they stay fit, and once they are fully back in the mix, Lancaster will have the devil's own job deciding on his optimum XV.
The coach has more pressing matters on his plate at present, however: namely, the meeting with the reigning Six Nations champions, whose comprehensive victory over France in Cardiff six days ago breathed new life into their title defence. As expected, Lancaster has kept Ben Morgan at the team base in Surrey - the Gloucester No 8 will replace the injured Billy Vunipola against Wales - and unless something unforeseen happens in training, this will be the only change to the starting line-up.
"Billy is still a very young international player, but I think he's demonstrated fantastic potential," the coach said. "He has a great work ethic, a strong carrying game and he thrives on big occasions, so he's a big loss to us. But Ben has similar abilities - he's a dead-set, like for like replacement - and he's been itching for an opportunity. I'm sure he'll be ready come Sunday week. It's a real chance for him."
Lancaster acknowledged the difficulties created by injuries over the course of the season, but did not for a second sound as though he felt sorry for himself. "Collectively, we've been unlucky - particularly with Leicester players who are also England players," he said, referring to the tight-head prop Dan Cole, the lock Geoff Parling and the flanker Tom Croft, as well as Tuilagi, their fellow Test Lion. "We've had a lot of key people picking up injuries that have kept them out for months rather than weeks, and it's been a challenge because our depth is being tested. But to win a World Cup you need strength across the board, so it's a good thing for us in the long run."
Inevitably, he was reminded of events at the Millennium Stadium last March, when England crossed the Severn Bridge with their eyes on a Grand Slam and ended up being slammed to within an inch of their lives. Again, he took care to strike a positive note. "Definitely, there were lessons learnt that day," he said, "and Wales have moved on since then. But so have we in terms of our game understanding and game management. The main thing we took from it was the need to keep our composure when the score turns against us.
"We lost composure in Cardiff and made a bad job worse. It was hard to take, no doubt about it: when you win four games out of four and then lose the Grand Slam and the championship in one go, it's tough.
"But no team stays unbeaten in international rugby, so the important thing is how you respond to a loss. Since that point last season we've become a lot more experienced at dealing with difficult situations, although the trick, of course, is not to put yourselves in those positions in the first place."
Might Ireland's recent victory over Wales in Dublin be a template for England? Lancaster was uncertain on this point. "I think the Irish played extremely well that day, but I don't think there's a template for beating any team if I'm honest. It's about making good decisions in the moment. That's what the best players do."
Such players also make it their business to "connect" with the referee, as the Wales flanker Sam Warburton undoubtedly did with Steve Walsh of Australia 13 months ago. While Lancaster emphasised that England did not lose that game because of the officiating - "We were beaten fair and square," he said - he was unusually frustrated by Walsh's performance at the time. Next weekend, Romain Poite of France will be in control, a man who restricts himself to a few stock English phrases and should therefore be less open to influence. There again, the Wales lock Luke Charteris speaks fluent French. Oh well.
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