Manu Tuilagi is a problem player, behaviourally as well as positionally, and the best that can be said for his latest transgression is that it solves a problem for someone else. That someone is Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, who can now plan for the forthcoming home World Cup without tying himself in Gordianesque knots over his midfield selection.
Tuilagi, incapacitated by a chronic groin injury, has not played so much as a minute of international rugby – or much rugby of any description – since last summer, when England were whitewashed by the All Blacks in New Zealand. During the hiatus, a very different kind of outside centre, Jonathan Joseph of Bath, has added a fresh dimension to the red-rose attacking game and looked every inch a potential match-winner at the highest level. Now that the human bowling ball has rolled his way out of World Cup contention, what might have been an awkward choice at No 13 is suddenly no choice at all.
So much for the good news. The bad news is that Lancaster dearly wanted the naturalised Samoan in his 31-man squad for the global gathering, and with good reason: should England find themselves in a tight spot at the back end of a major match – and as they have been drawn in the so-called “pool of death”, all but one of their games will have a whiff of something perilous about it – the possibility of unleashing Tuilagi off the bench would have been reassuring.
Indeed, the national coach has been positively dewy-eyed about Tuilagi’s absence, not least because the memory of England’s record victory over the New Zealanders at Twickenham in 2012 continues to loom large in his mind’s eye. Tuilagi may not be able to pass or kick, but he was undeniably phenomenal that day: fast, direct, eye-wateringly powerful and close to unstoppable. To lose all that is no one’s idea of a victory, even if the man is sometimes more trouble than he is worth.
It was back in 2011, when the last World Cup unfolded, that Tuilagi’s capacity to be a pain in the butt last outweighed his ability to inflict pain on his opponents. England had bombed in that tournament, on and off the pitch, but after losing to France in the quarter-finals, there was no obvious prospect of them messing up again before catching the flight home. At least, that was how it seemed until the Leicester midfielder threw himself off a ferry into the cold waters of Auckland harbour and ended up helping the local police with their inquiries.
“Manu overboard!” was the first one-liner to be cracked on the subject. “The players were meant to be going ON the drink, not IN the drink,” was a close second. These quips might have been genuinely funny had Tuilagi and his colleagues played even a half-decent game of rugby during the competition, but that sort of thing was entirely beyond them.
When Martin Johnson brought his ill-starred and wholly misconceived spell as England manager to a merciful end by resigning, the Rugby Football Union asked a very different character to piece the team back together. Lancaster, a proud man of Cumbrian farming stock and a dyed-in-the-wool technocrat, was almost John Major-ish in his determination to impose a “back to basics” policy on the elite squad and made no apologies for bringing his puritanical streak to bear on red-rose affairs, informing his charges that they could either be role models or Jack-the-lads but not both, and that anyone choosing the latter course would soon be an ex-international.
By all accounts, Tuilagi made the “right” choice as far as the England hierarchy were concerned, to the extent that he was always included in squad business even when he was struggling with long-term injuries. Whether this latest episode was an expression of the frustration he felt at being incapacitated for so long in a World Cup year, only he knows, but Lancaster would be the last coach on the planet to accept it as an excuse.
A World Cup training squad will be named next week, featuring between 45 and 50 candidates. As many as eight centres could be included, some of them Test regulars in recent seasons – Brad Barritt of Saracens, Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester, Luther Burrell of Northampton – and some of them more recent arrivals, including Joseph and his Bath clubmate Kyle Eastmond. Other contenders are uncapped: Henry Slade of Exeter, Elliot Daly of Wasps and a third Bath player in the cross-code convert Sam Burgess, although Lancaster appears to be one of the few men alive who still considers him to be a midfielder rather than a back-rower.
On the face of it, then, England have options a-plenty, above and beyond Tuilagi. What they do not have is a like-for-like replacement. If only the human bowling ball could have kept rolling on the straight and narrow.
TUILAGI TROUBLES - life and times
Born 18 May, 1991, Fogapoa, Savai’i Samoa
25 caps for England
1 British & Irish Lions cap
Forced to appeal to avoid deportation after being found to have outstayed a holiday visa.
Misses Premiership final after being given a five-week ban for repeatedly striking England colleague Chris Ashton during a match with Northampton.
Fined £5,000 for wearing an illegal, sponsored mouthguard during World Cup. Detained by New Zealand police and fined £3,000 by England officials after jumping into Auckland harbour from a ferry following quarter-final defeat to France.
Issued apology to Prime Minister David Cameron after making “bunny ears” behind his back during a Downing St photocall.