Until a few weeks ago, Manu Tuilagihad been best known for vying with Wendi Deng as to who had thrown the year's most notorious right-hander. With a try on his Test debut against Wales earlier this month and now this compelling display of controlled ferocity, on his second appearance, with another try, he has lit a flame of hope in an England midfield where previously only dank darkness lay.
We can never know whether or not the late Bill McLaren would have greeted Tuilagi's efforts with a cry of "and they'll be dancing in the streets of Fatausi-Fogapoa tonight", but the 20-year-old's story – of a Samoa-born boy turned England midfielder with only a single senior club season with Leicester which ended abruptly with a five-week ban for punching in a Premiership semi-final – is growing more remarkable by the minute. Not least due to its eminent timeliness with the World Cup that kicks off in New Zealand on Friday week.
The quality of this last of the World Cup warm-up matches was not as high as the renewed injury count to both sides, even though it lacked the all-out fervour of, say, a Grand Slam showdown, as when England were here in March and lost 24-8. That was their seventh defeat in the previous eight meetings with the Irish, that began with the first toppling of the then world champions in 2004. So any kind of victory could be said to be welcome. For Ireland, this was a profoundly depressing fourth defeat out of four in August.
England began with a promising series of a few phases given impetus by Hendre Fourie – not a member of their 30-man World Cup squad but required with fellow back-rowers Lewis Moody, Nick Easter and Tom Wood missing – and Andrew Sheridan that petered out with slow ruck ball shipped to players standing still. Same old, same old? Not with young Tuilagi around.
When James Haskell galloped round the blind side of a scrum fromNo 8 and over the gainline, a position developed that was exploited ruthlessly. Sheridan made a few metres then Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall's simple passes, right to left, found Tuilagi who had picked an angle designed to take him motoring past Keith Earls' outside shoulder. Wilkinson converted. Tit-for-tat penalties by Ronan O'Gara and Wilkinson – two apiece – had England 13-6 up by the 27th minute. Three players were off by then, the most obviously hurt being Ireland's openside David Wallace who jammed his knee horribly while taking a Tuilagi tackle.
Tuilagi remained coiled and poised like a cobra. An obliging bounce on the England 22, from a huge Irish line-out overthrow set him on a 70m run, eventually to be hauled down by Geordan Murphy. Recycling, England went across the field, and had a possible overlap near the right touchline if the pass was delivered well. Foden and Chris Ashton raged to Courtney Lawes (now playing at flanker) when his fancy sidedoor effort failed to reach them.
O'Gara's third penalty trimmed England to 13-9 at half-time, and Ashton went to the sin-bin for lying over the ball, a minute into the second half. But with 14 men England had their second try. A good position near the posts sucked Ireland in, and Tindall, with a deft flick, kicked through for Armitage to score and Wilkinson to convert, though the fly-half was catcalled soon after for putting a touch-finding penalty dead in-goal.
Ashton, last seen limping off in May's Heineken Cup final, later to have a knee operation, returned and conceded a penalty for a push that O'Gara, who had hit a post with the yellow-card penalty, kicked to touch. But as in the first half, Ireland failed to make the position pay. England set up then lost control of a driving maul – a surprising failing of late that needs to be remedied quickly – and the arrival of Jonny Sexton as a replacement for O'Gara stirred Irish thoughts of a turnaround.
A lunge by Tuilagi on his club-mate Murphy that was more shoulder-barge than tackle reminded you of the youngster's volatility. But compared with Shontayne Hape's stodgy solidity... well, suffice to say Tindall, though moved to his less familiar position of inside centre, looked a man reborn. When Sexton attacked the English line he was cut down decisively by Lawes's tackle and England held out.
Ireland kick off their World Cup against the USA two weeks today and will pray for Brian O'Driscoll, Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney, absent here, to be fit by then. England, with Argentina as their opening opponents, are in better shape.
Be glad for Tuilagi
Brian Smith, the England attack coach, believes the first 20 minutes of a Test match is a time for field position to be established and midfield power to be asserted, with the gaps to be found and exposed later. But when your midfield includes a burgeoning centre like Manu Tuilagi, who combines the speed of a sprinter with the muscle of a heavyweight boxer (he weighs 110kg, the same as Wladimir Klitschko), why wait? Keith Earls's alignment in the Ireland defence for Tuilagi's fifth minute try may have been suspect but Tuilagi, the young Leicester Tiger, had to line himself up for the gap, and run through it. He is the youngest of six rugby-playing brothers and the best four before him have played already for Samoa. Mind you, the brothers have a few sons who are growing up fast in the same Leicester suburb where England'snew star lives with the third of thesix, Alesana.
Back row blues
The back row looked an endangered species when Ireland's David Wallace was put out of the World Cup - with a replacement to be nominated today - by a savage twist of the knee and team-mate Jamie Heaslip and England's Hendre Fourie joined him off the field before the first half was out. Fourie, omitted from the World Cup squad on Monday, was needed yesterday with Lewis Moody (knee), Nick Easter (calf) and Tom Wood (calf) unavailable. Ireland were lacking Wallace's fellow flanker Sean O'Brien (knee) though he and Brian O'Driscoll (shoulder) and Rob Kearney (groin) are on the mend. England said all their World Cup wounded would walk safely on to tomorrow's plane to New Zealand, including Mark Cueto who went off with a back spasm. Fourie will go back to marking time with his new club, Sale, in the hope or perhaps expectation that an encouraging 20 minutes here makes him first reserve if Moody or another team-mate goes lame.
Strong man Sheridan
Amid the injury carnage it was a relief to England supporters to see Andrew Sheridan make it through 54 minutes - his first action since April - in good nick. The loosehead prop had an operation 14 weeks ago in which a bicep was cut off and reattached to the humerus, and that's no joke. His bullocking charge in the preamble to Tuilagi's try and a shove on Ireland's ball to earn a first-quarter penalty was impressive, although England had been turned over to concede the put-in in the first place.
Speeding is fine
The chances of England going far in New Zealand would be minimal without their fastest forwards. Injuries forced Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes to shift positions during the match yesterday but the speed of both men was evident and it gives their side an important edge. Croft, uncharacteristically, lost his rag twice – but that kind of edge is no bad thing, either, at the right time.
Ireland G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), J Flannery (Munster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster, capt), S Ferris (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster). Replacements R Best (Ulster) for Flannery 50; T Court (Ulster) for Healy, 70; D Ryan (Munster) for Heaslip, 34; D Leamy (Munster) for Wallace, 21; C Murray (Munster) for Reddan, 61; J Sexton (Leinster) for O'Gara, 61; F McFadden (Leinster) for Trimble, 71.
England B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tuilagi (Leicester), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), M Cueto (Sale); J Wilkinson (Toulon), R Wigglesworth (Saracens); A Sheridan (Sale), S Thompson (Wasps), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), T Croft (Leicester), J Haskell (Black Rams), H Fourie (Sale). Replacements D Hartley (Northampton) for Thompson, 51; M Stevens (Saracens) for Sheridan, 54; S Shaw (unattached) for Deacon, 62; T Palmer (Stade Français) for Fourie, 21; T Flood (Leicester) for Tindall, 74; D Armitage (London Irish) for Cueto, 21.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Pens: O'Gara 3
Tries: Tuilagi, Armitage
Cons: Wilkinson 2
Pens: Wilkinson 2
What they say... Tuilagi: I couldn't have asked for anything better
Stand-in captain Mike Tindall praised the contribution of his centre partner, Manu Tuilagi, after their first match together. "If you're ever in doubt, you give Manu the ball and he's such a physical specimen that he can create stuff from nothing," said Tindall. "He's got that acceleration, that little kick from a standing start too, that helps."
Tuilagi, a try scorer on his debut against Wales three weeks ago, returned the compliment. "Tins' makes my job so much easier," he said. "Having him there with all that experience is good. It has been an amazing start. I couldn't have asked for anything better than scoring in my first two games for England."
The England team manager, Martin Johnson, had dropped Shontayne Hape in favour of moving Tindall to inside centre with Tuilagi outside him. Johnson said: "Mike and Manu went well. We have got a few good combinations there. I thought we played that little bit smarter all the way through. It didn't always go to plan but as a team we worked well on our feet, and didn't panic."