The Independent understands that talk of Tuilagi’s completed Leicester Tigers exit is premature, although the whopping £2.5m three-year-deal remains firmly on the table and the Premiership club are growing increasingly resigned to losing the academy product at the end of the season.
Racing are willing to pay Tuilagi around £830,000 per year, nearly twice what Leicester are currently shelling out for him, and the East Midlands club are understood to have offered a 25 per cent increase on his current deal that would take him to around £560,000 a season. With England players paid £25,000 per appearance, Tuilagi would need to also play every international each year to get close to what Racing are offering him.
Tuilagi visited the Top 14 club - which is owned by Swiss billionaire Jacky Lorenzetti - last week to view their facilities, including the state-of-the-art Defence Arena in Paris, although sources extremely close to Tuilagi say that the deal is not yet done, even if it is his preferred destination.
Should Tuilagi, who will turn 28 in May, give the move to Paris the green light, he will effectively end his England career, or at least put it on hold for the foreseeable future. The Rugby Football Union do not select players based abroad unless there are “exceptional circumstances”, which Tuilagi’s move would not fall under. However, with Tuilagi out of contract with Leicester this summer, the RFU would insist that he remain unattached so to play in this year’s Rugby World Cup, before committing to a contract with Racing from December.
That obviously brings its own risk for Tuilagi as Racing could decide to pull the plug on a move should he suffer injury in Japan or they have a change of heart, but at present the club are open to that scenario.
Jonny Wilkinson remains the highest-profile England player to have moved to France, but the RFU selection policy was not in place when he joined Toulon in 2009 and he subsequently continued to represent his country until international retirement in 2011. Chris Ashton saw his England career put on hold through his own move to Toulon before returning to both the Premiership and the England squad this season, while Eddie Jones has previously selected Ben Te’o, Piers Francis and Brad Shields while based abroad, albeit they all had agreed deals to move to the Premiership.
With the news emerging moments before he named Tuilagi in his England side that will face Wales this Saturday in the Six Nations, Jones was unwilling to discuss the details of the move, but did reveal that the squad has given him plenty of stick over the imminent move across the Channel.
“As long as he doesn’t get on the Eurostar between now and Saturday I’ve got no comment on it because all I’m worried about is Saturday,” said Jones.
“We just have fun about it. Give him baguettes, croissants, wear berets. Good fun. He’s got to make a decision and what decision he makes will be up to him. He is a massively important part of our team. The guys like playing with him, they love him. He loves playing with the team and that is his only concern at the moment.
“I don’t decide what he does for his family. Every player has a family situation they have got to look after and I want them to look after their families. He is in our family at the moment and we want him to play well for us; that is our only concern right now.”
Understandably, the news is not just a blow to England - who have gone more than four years without the services of their superstar centre - but for Leicester, who have invested significant time and money in Tuilagi and stuck by him during his injury nightmare.
Tuilagi has made just over 140 appearances for Leicester since making his debut in 2010, but only 33 of those have come since September 2016 as he struggled with a persistent groin injury, among many other setbacks.
Should Tuilagi leave to pursue the move to France - something that five of his brothers have all chosen to do during their careers - it would free up a significant chunk of Leicester salary next season.
It would also not rule him out of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, as Tuilagi’s deal on offer runs to June 2022, which would allow him to pursue a move back to the Premiership and subsequently into England contention should he wish to do so, albeit at the age of 31.
But his England teammates are currently revelling in having him back in the squad as he will continue his new centre partnership with Henry Sade this weekend, which sees England looking to keep their Grand Slam hopes alive and end Wales’ in the process. One of those is captain Owen Farrell, who emerged into the England set-up not long after Tuilagi’s breakthrough, and to put Tuilagi’s injury issues into perspective, Farrell’s 68th England cap this weekend will be more than double Tuilagi’s 30th.
So was he one of those mocking him with French-themed gifts? “Not me, I don’t give him stick. Would you give Manu stick?” Farrell said.
“We’re not thinking about that now. That’s for another time. That’s for Manu to decide for himself. It’s nothing to do with us.
“He is someone you look at before you go out for a game and see that big massive smile on his face and, knowing that he is going to be unbelievably physical, that makes you excited to go out there and play with him.”
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