Manu Tuilagi has been ruled out of England’s forthcoming business with the best sides in the southern hemisphere – by the Leicester hierarchy at least – and the news sent the red-rose coach Stuart Lancaster into a tailspin. Yet the fact that the human bowling ball was still under consideration for a place in the 33-man elite squad to be named on Wednesday indicated that Lancaster might be prepared to select on the basis of blind hope rather than realistic expectation.
Tuilagi suffered a groin injury – by no means his first – during his club’s European Champions Cup victory over Ulster and according to the Leicester rugby director Richard Cockerill, he will be incapacitated for “four weeks plus”. The England medics were still awaiting a precise prognosis, hence Lancaster’s reluctance to write his destructive centre out of the autumn international script, but this much is now certain: when the All Blacks comes knocking on Twickenham’s door in 17 days’ time, the man who tormented them so relentless two years ago will not be there to greet them.
There was better news on the midfield front from Bath, who confirmed that Kyle Eastmond, the most convincing attacking No 12 in the country over the opening stretch of Premiership matches, would be fit for international duty. Eastmond failed to go the distance against Glasgow last weekend after hurting his ribs, but the problem is not considered serious. Together with Saracens’ defensive supremo Brad Barritt, he is putting a heap of pressure on the Gloucester captain Billy Twelvetrees, a Six Nations regular earlier this year but out of sorts at present.
Lancaster will add another six or seven players to his squad after close of European play on Sunday, so Wednesday’s announcement, complicated by the small print of the agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the top-flight clubs, will not tell the whole story. A number of uncapped players are pressing for debuts in the coming weeks – the Bath wings Anthony Watson and Semesa Rokoduguni, the Exeter midfielder Henry Slade, the Northampton blind-side operator Calum Clark and the Saracens breakaway Will Fraser among them – but their place in the great scheme of things may not become clear immediately.
Chris Robshaw, the Harlequins flanker, is expected to retain the captaincy and fully deserves to do so. Meanwhile, some of the form forwards in the country – most notably the Leicester lock Graham Kitchener and the Exeter back-rower Dave Ewers – are about to discover whether their sterling efforts have come to nothing.