What should England do with Manu Tuilagi?
The exciting and powerful Leicester centre has a licence to thrill, but doubts remain over Tuilagi's long-term place – and his best role – in the England line-up
If Manu Tuilagi drives his car the way he plays his rugby, the British insurance industry may soon find itself in the kind of meltdown experienced by the Fiji defence at Twickenham last weekend. The human bowling ball recently passed his test – "I was so pleased when the instructor told me the news, I grabbed hold of his hand and wouldn't let go," he recalls, conjuring an image of some petrified soul leaving the vehicle without his right arm – and has therefore officially been let loose on the roads.
It gets scarier. "I don't have my own motor at present so I'm borrowing my brother's Dodge," says the man who never dodged anything in his life. "Everyone thought I'd drive really aggressively, but at the end of the test I was told there hadn't been any mistakes at all – not even minor ones. They said I'd driven perfectly." Why would anyone in his right mind tell him otherwise?
Tuilagi has spent the last month in a state of bliss. Two tries for Leicester in their big Heineken Cup game against Ospreys at Welford Road a little under four weeks ago confirmed to the England coaching staff that he was fit and ready to throw himself at the pick of the southern hemisphere and, sure enough, he put another two past the hapless Fijians, his face a picture of rapture on both occasions. "It always shows, doesn't it?" he says. "I just love the feeling of touching that ball down, whoever I'm playing against."
England have grown to love the feeling every bit as much, to the extent that they are shifting heaven and earth to build their back division around Tuilagi. But things are not quite as simple as they tend to appear when the Samoan-born centre is travelling the shortest distance between Point A – the patch of grass where he happens to be standing on receipt of the ball – and Point B, the opposition goal-line. Rugby is a team game and the midfield is a unit operation. If Tuilagi is a team player to the tips of his toes, is he really a part of the optimum unit?
One of the things Stuart Lancaster, the head coach of the national team, inherited from his predecessor Martin Johnson after the spectacular World Cup pratfall in New Zealand in 2011 was a midfield packed to the gunwales with size and muscle, a fair percentage of it Tuilagi's, but wholly lacking in the creative arts. By the end of the tournament, the youngster looked like a one-trick pony and probably felt like it. No wonder he threw himself off a ferry in Auckland harbour.
With the emergence of a very different kind of outside centre in Jonathan Joseph of London Irish, a classically equipped Jeremy Guscott-style glider rather than a route-one rumbler, Lancaster has been toying with the idea of using Tuilagi in a different way: as a No 12, rather than as a No 13. Even though the man from Fatausi-Fogapoa is not obviously blessed with the full range of inside-centre talents – he has no kicking game to speak of and has yet to bewilder top-class opponents with his distributive dexterity – the introduction of Alex Goode of Saracens at full-back makes all things possible. A playmaking outside-half by instinct and breeding, Goode is the "second footballer" the coach craves for his back division. Suddenly, it seems there might be method in the madness.
The problem? Tuilagi is a reluctant inside centre at best. "I'm absolutely clear in how I see myself," he says. "I think I'm an outside centre and that's what I want to be. Of course, if England pick me as a No 12, I'll be happy to play there. But the position I love most is No 13: I enjoy the extra space, the attacking opportunities. When you're in the inside position, you're straight into the heavy traffic. It's a 'head down and get on with it' role. I'm always working to improve my kicking and passing skills and I believe I have it in me to do a job there; but No 13 is where I play my best rugby."
According to Richard Cockerill, his rugby director at club level, Tuilagi could develop into the best outside centre in world rugby – quite a claim, given the continuing brilliance of Conrad Smith, the wonderful All Black midfielder, and the many and varied eye-catching No 13s being nurtured in France and Wales. But Cockerill believes there is much more to come from his man: it is, after all, only a couple of years since Tuilagi moved in from the wing.
It was Cockerill's colleague at Welford Road, the Australian coach Matt O'Connor, who, two Christmases ago, nudged Tuilagi towards a midfield spot after injury problems left Leicester short in the No 13 position. "I remember Matt naming the team and thinking 'What the… well, OK'," says the 21-year-old. "I found myself up against my brother Andy, who was playing for Sale. I scored twice and won the man-of-the-match award, but what I really remember is giving Andy a hand-off on my first run and then trying to do it again and finding blood coming out of my nose."
Despite the crimson, he has felt at home in the position ever since. Yet away from the East Midlands, there is less clarity among strategists and tacticians as to Tuilagi's optimum role at international level. For instance, the former England coach Brian Ashton, whose pioneering approach to attacking rugby has shaped much of Lancaster's thinking as well as that of his back-room colleagues Andy Farrell and Mike Catt, favours a return to the wing.
Joseph's failure to recover from an ankle injury in time for the start of this autumn programme has allowed the red-rose back-roomers to kick the can down the road, to borrow a phrase from politics. Having played Tuilagi at inside centre against the Springboks in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth last summer – with mixed results, it has to be said – Lancaster has been able to push him back out to No 13 and reinstall the utterly dependable, defensively outstanding Brad Barritt of Saracens alongside him.
But it is not an issue that can be parked forever. If Joseph is not back in the selectorial mix by the end of this series, he will certainly demand consideration ahead of the Six Nations, which begins in February. So too might Billy Twelvetrees, a former club-mate of Tuilagi's at Leicester.
A number of good judges feel Twelvetrees has the skill set to provide a long-term answer to the No 12 conundrum that has tied successive England coaches in knots since the retirement of Will Greenwood eight years ago. For one thing, he has a kick like a mule, both out of hand and off the tee; for another, he has the best running pass in the English game. He is also big enough to survive the midfield crunch and is playing out of his skin for his new club, Gloucester. Lancaster has acknowledged as much by including him in his training sessions at the team base in Surrey.
Could it be that by this time next year, Tuilagi will find himself restricted to an impact role off the bench? It is far from impossible if Lancaster concludes that the problem he causes is as great as the solution he provides, if not greater. Tuilagi's supporters – and there are many of them – point to the All Black example of Ma'a Nonu, a centre with similar physical gifts who has succeeded in widening his horizons, but Nonu has had two unusual advantages: the masterly Smith on one shoulder and a certain Daniel Carter on the other.
A second silver-ferned example may be more pertinent. Before last year's World Cup, the notion that the All Blacks would find a way to leave a centre as spellbinding as Sonny Bill Williams out of their starting combination seemed ridiculous. But leave him out they did, because their back-line balance demanded it. If Tuilagi is now the proud possessor of a driving licence, his licence to thrill on an international rugby field is not yet his for keeps.
Central conundrum: England's options
His knock-'em-down style has been at the heart of England's recent progress, but needs to offer playmaking creativity.
Carries a threat as a straight-line runner, but unless he can bring added extras to his game, he may be found wanting.
Capped in South Africa last summer, if he is as good an outside centre as many say, he could beat Tuilagi to the No 13 shirt.
Uncapped, but may not stay that way for long. Looks increasingly like a career inside centre with all the right qualifications.
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