Manu Tuilagi has been named in England’s 25-man squad that will face New Zealand this Saturday, opening the door for him to make his international return against the side that he produced his best performance against six years ago.
The 27-year-old was due to return in last Saturday’s victory over South Africa, but was forced to withdraw from the squad with a minor groin strain, with Eddie Jones unwilling to risk his fitness given his nightmare run of injuries.
Tuilagi has not started for England since the 2014 summer tour of New Zealand, with his one and only appearance since then coming in a late substitution against Wales in the 2016 Six Nations. His lengthy injury problems - which has included surgery on his pectoral muscle and knee as well as a career-threatening groin condition - has kept him out of Jones’ plans thus far.
But after playing a full role in training on Tuesday, Tuilagi has been named among the 25 players retained for this weekend’s highly-anticipated clash with the All Blacks, of which two will drop out from the match-day side.
Jones has made two changes in total from last week’s squad, with Courtney Lawes also fit to return after recovering from a back injury, while Tom Curry has been ruled out of the entire autumn international campaign with the ankle injury he suffered early in the second half of the 12-11 win over the Springboks.
“Curry will be ruled out of the rest of the series,” said forwards coach Steve Borthwick. “As you know he injured his ankle. Beyond that we don’t know how long, but it’s not within the next three Test matches so he won’t be available for us.
“I’m not a doctor but he’s injured his ankle and he had scans earlier in the week, now he’s off to see a specialist this week - though I don’t know exactly when - to understand fully what the next steps are.”
He added: “He’s a fantastic young player, you saw that in the summer and saw that at the weekend in the gametime that he had. He’s got a fantastic future ahead of him, it’s disappointing and we don’t know how long he’ll be injured for, but this injury is an opportunity for him to improve as a player and get better, it’s an opportunity to get working and I know with his attitude he’ll come back in even better shape than what he is in right now.”
Sam Underhill is retained to fill the void left by Curry’s absence - with the Sale Sharks flanker set to see a specialist later this week to determine if he needs surgery on his right ankle - while Bath lock Elliott Stooke drops out to make way for Lawes.
“Everybody else is available for selection,” added Borthwick. “Today we ran three different warm-ups, with three different groups of players as they got ready for training. That’s only part of individual management, all players took part in training today so there’s nobody out of it.
“Everybody at camp is available for selection.”
Tuilagi will need to come through a double-training session on Wednesday to prove to Jones that he is ready to start for England, although he could find himself among the replacements once again after Ben Te’o formed a defensively strong partnership with Henry Slade at centre.
Should Tuilagi make it through the sessions and Jones decide to stick with Jonny May and Jack Nowell on the wing, Chris Ashton could find himself again as the unlucky man to miss out on the squad - with one other forward also set to be omitted.
The make-up of Jones’ back-row could look very different this weekend than it did against the Springboks due to Curry’s absence. Underhill would be the simple option to slot straight in at openside flanker, but both Jones and Borthwick have mentioned Saturday’s man-of-the-match Wilson as a potential No 7. This would open the door for 21-year-old Zach Mercer to start at No 8, or for Brad Shields to anchor the scrum and Maro Itoje to move to blindside flanker to accommodate Lawes in the second-row.
“We’ve got a lot of options there in the back-row, we’ve got a lot of versatility with Sam Underhill, Mark Wilson, and Zach Mercer’s played right across the back-row,” Borthwick added. “We’ve got Courtney Lawes training fully so through that back-five of the scrum - we had Charlie Ewels come on at 6 at the weekend - we’ve got a lot of really good quality players.”
As part of Jones’ plans, Curry will remain with the England camp until the full extent of his ankle injury is determined, while banned Alex Lozowski - who is unable to play this weekend as he serves the final week of a three-week suspension for a dangerous tackle in Saracens’ win over Glasgow Warriors - will also stay at their Pennyhill Park training base, with Jones considering the centre for next week’s third Quilter International against Japan.
Harlequins pair Nathan Earle and Joe Marchant - the latter given his first call-up this week - will remain for Wednesday’s session before returning to their club to prepare for this weekend’s Premiership Rugby Cup fixtures.
England’s 25-man squad to face New Zealand
Forwards: Charlie Ewels, Jamie George, Dylan Hartley, Alec Hepburn, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Zach Mercer, Ben Moon, Brad Shields, Kyle Sinckler, San Underhill, Harry Williams, Mark Wilson.
Backs: Chris Ashton, Danny Care, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs.
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