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Inside the Tigers’ Den - Manu Tuilagi’s return not enough

By Rob Byrne

Leicester Tigers' Manu Tuilagi goes between Harlequins' Harry Sloan (left) and Ben Botica (right) during the Aviva Premiership match at Twickenham Stoop, London. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire. EMN-160223-090359001
Leicester Tigers' Manu Tuilagi goes between Harlequins' Harry Sloan (left) and Ben Botica (right) during the Aviva Premiership match at Twickenham Stoop, London. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire. EMN-160223-090359001

Manu Tuilagi is not ready to be back in an England shirt just yet.

It’s tempting - and you can see why new national coach Eddie Jones would want to rush the centre back into the side, despite their unbeaten start to the Six Nations.

But while Tuilagi looked immensely powerful for Leicester in their 25-19 loss to Harlequins, there were both good and negative qualities on display.

The good. Leicester have been missing players who can get over the game line and Tuilagi is just that. Harlequins tried to counter his power by matching up openside flanker Luke Wallace opposite him whenever possible, and while the flanker had an outstanding game, earning the man of the match award, 24-year-old Tuilagi managed to get over the gain line with almost every carry.

It was one such barging run which set-up Leicester’s only try of the game, scored superbly by young Harry Thacker, who proved all the doubters who have said he doesn’t have the size for Premiership rugby wrong, powering through two tackles to touch down.

The bad came six minutes from time. This time a triple hit saw Tuilagi lose the ball and Marland Yarde scooped up the pill and raced over to score what proved to be the game winning try.

And the ugly. At times Tuilagi looked a little lost in defence, that happens after so long out of the game, and he was the never the most disciplined defender anyway. When he did hit the opposition it wasn’t always legal. A video of his huge, illegal hit, on opposite number Winston Stanley is already going viral on Youtube - who doesn’t love seeing someone smashed into touch. It would have been even better, and probably an even bigger hit if he had wrapped his arms around.

Jones had initially stated that he wanted to bring Tuilagi in to face Wales on March 12, but the back picked up a minor hamstring injury, which sidelined him for three weeks, after making his return from a 15 month injury lay-off caused by a groin injury.

While the exact details of Tuilagi’s new contract are not public it is widely suggested that Tuilagi is amongst the highest paid players in the world now, and it comes as no surprise that Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill wanst to protect his prize asset.

Cockerill said: “He’s not ready to play at Test level yet. He’s played one game and still isn’t quite sharp, as you saw. He did some things but needs to be managed properly.

“Me and Eddie can have that discussion. If he’s fit, he can play. If he’s not then he won’t. We’ll be sensible about it.”

“Manu got through the game and did some good things and made some errors as well, but everybody makes errors.

“Let’s hope Manu can stay on the field and we can keep him playing. Manu played his first game here for a few weeks, so we’ll see where that leads to.”

The loss on Friday night was also the debut of former South African captain Jean De Villiers, who was sneaked into the starting line-up last minute. Something we learned from the BT Tigers XV documentary on Friday night, the Leicester management are a fan of doing.

It was a low-key debut but his leadership and experience was clear to see, which was needed with young academy graduate Oli Bryant making his first start at fly half in the league.

It seems strange the Spring Bok started at outside centre, with Tuilagi at 12, perhaps it’s because Eddie Jones has stated very publicly he sees the Englishman as inside centre, in the Ma’a Nonu role.

There were plenty of positives from Leicester but the facts are it was their third straight loss in he league and they have now dropped out of the top four of the Aviva Premiership, behind Saracens and Exeter and then Wasps and Quins, the later two with a two point advantage.

Cockerill said: “We did enough to win the game, but we were inaccurate and we didn’t make the most of our opportunities. I’m very disappointed.

“We’ve had a bit of a blip in the last few games but we have to show some character and get out the other side of it. We’ve always managed to do that and we will do it again.

“We’re not looking for any excuses because that is not what we are about. There are no issues with attitude, but it is a test of character for the squad and the coaches and everybody else. The only way to deal with it is to work hard, train well and put it right on the field.”

Next up for Leicester is London Irish, which is now very much a must win match.

This week Tigers brought in some reinforcement in the form of Bristol Rugby prop Ellis Genge who has joined the club on a loan agreement with immediate effect. The 21-year-old has made quite an impact in the Greene King IPA Championship, making first-team appearances and scoring six tries.

He will return to Bristol and be available for selection for the Championship play-offs.

Leicester’s England duo Dan Cole and Ben Youngs remain with England as they prepare to face Ireland in one of the showdown games of the Six Nations tournament.


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