Tuilagi gets a puncher's chance for England spot

Manu, youngest of six rugby brothers from Samoa, is making an imposing case to clinch a late World Cup place

Manu Tuilagi may be new to international rugby – he makes his Test debut, for his adopted England rather than his native Samoa, at Twickenham tomorrow afternoon – but there is nothing mysterious about the way he goes about his work. "I spent most of my time in France last season but I saw bits and pieces of him on the television, and anyway, I'd played enough games against members of his family to get the general idea," said Jonny Wilkinson yesterday on being asked whether the murderous physicality of England's new outside centre had taken him by surprise. The great goalkicker could not help wincing, even so.

Tuilagi wears his 20-year-old heart on his sleeve: that much was obvious when he took profound exception to a gentle pat on the head and decked his fellow red-rose back Chris Ashton with a three-punch combination of considerable quality during last season's Premiership semi-final between Leicester and Northampton. Equally dramatically, he wears his South Seas heritage on his right arm, which is decorated with an elaborate tattoo that starts at the shoulder and ends a short distance above the wrist.

"I went back to Samoa for three weeks just recently, my first trip back for six years, and as there was a master of the tattoo there at the same time, I thought I might as well get it done," he told his audience at the World Cup training base in Surrey. "It was brutal: it took the guy 14 hours and there was a lot of pain, especially when he put the five stars of the Samoan flag on my elbow. But part of the reason for doing it is to show you can take the pain. Traditionally, they used whale bones, but they tend to break. They use needles now." Then he moved his hand from midriff to thigh, saying: "The full tattoo goes from here to here and takes 12 days. I'm not planning to have one of those."

The rugby cognoscenti have been watching various Tuilagis – Fereti and Henry, Alesana and Anitelea and Vavae – for years now, and have reached the conclusion that if there is a First Family of the union code, the six brothers from Fatausi-Fogapoa, a sparsely populated lava-field village on the island of Savai'i, have earned the right to the title. Many in the England camp expect Manu, the 16st 7lbs baby of the sextet, to emerge as the best of them.

This time last year, he was fighting deportation: the Home Office was on his case for visa irregularities and did not back off until three MPs from Midlands constituencies intervened on the midfielder's behalf. His subsequent fight with Ashton – a one-sided bout, to be sure – cost him a five-week ban and an appearance in the Premiership final. He has had little to say about either affair, although he did reveal yesterday that he had sought the wisdom of his brothers after the unfortunate entanglement with his fellow World Cup training squad member.

"They are always happy to give me advice and I always take in what they tell me," he remarked. "They just said: 'Keep playing rugby.' Everyone knows what happened, and if such a situation arose again I'd manage it differently. It's important to learn from mistakes. But it's behind me now, it's in the past." Had Martin Johnson given him one of his dark looks and warned him as to his future conduct? Apparently not. Who did he fear most, the manager or his brothers? "My brothers," he replied after a long pause for thought.

According to Johnson, there is still plenty of South Seas aggression in the newcomer's approach to the game. "Manu likes to come out of the line and hit people," he said with a wolfish grin. "There's a little bit of Samoa about his defence." Tuilagi agrees wholeheartedly, describing the all-over body assault as patented by such honoured countrymen as Brian "The Chiropractor" Lima as "good fun". Yet he sees himself as English, not Samoan. "I've done all my schooling here, I played for England in the Under-16s, the Under-18s, the Under-20s," he pointed out. "And there has been no negativity at all from the people back home. They are proud of what I'm achieving here. For me to carry on the name of a small country like Samoa in a big country like England is special.

"This is my chance to show everyone what I can do. I've surprised myself by getting here – all that talk halfway through last season about me breaking into the international team didn't register at the time – but I want to make the most of it now. When they named me in the 45 for World Cup training, I was so excited I rang all my family. My phone bill was pretty high, but it was worth it."

Should Tuilagi make an immediate impact by busting the Welsh defensive line tomorrow – "I'll make sure I wear my scrum cap," said his opposite number, the Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies, on learning of the England selection – the last person to express surprise will be Wilkinson, who played World Cup rugby at a similarly tender age back in 1999.

"I've seen different players came and go – some of them uniquely gifted, like Jason Robinson," said the outside-half, who starts alongside Tuilagi in midfield. "I think he has the same aura, that Jason-like uniqueness in being able to make an impact on a match. You have to be special to change a game that is so strongly based on the collective. Playing down in Toulon I saw the same thing in Sonny Bill Williams, so this is quite a compliment to Manu.

"He doesn't just run over people, either: he has footwork. He also has focus, he's a sharp thinker and he doesn't drop off when things get tough. The Tuilagis have made a big contribution to rugby, but he can take it to another level. That's a compliment, too."


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