Manu Tuilagi has been named at 12 for Leicester’s Premiership fixture against Harlequins on Friday, only his second game back after 15 months away from the game. Can he be the answer to England’s long-term problems at inside centre? Paul Wassell investigates.
Owen Farrell has started both of England’s Six Nations games at inside centre this season and has made a decent fist of it, most notably setting up both Jack Nowell against Scotland and George Ford against Italy.
However, Farrell has been named as one of three vice captains under Eddie Jones first two games in charge and – along with Mike Brown and Billy Vunipola – he looks to be a central part of England’s spine of players for the foreseeable future.
Yet Farrell’s fine form for Saracens this season suggests he should be started at 10 over George Ford, a player who has struggled for an under-performing Bath this season and has yet to re-discover his best form in an England shirt. This could all change when Manu Tuilagi comes back into the equation, however.
Interestingly, Tuilagi has been named at 12 rather than his more comfortable position of 13 for the Tigers’ next Premiership fixture at the Stoop against Harlequins. This could suggest that Jones has been talking to Leicester’s Director of Rugby, Richard Cockerill, behind the scenes about a potential move for Manu to the inside centre slot, or it could suggest Leicester’s backs coach Aaron Mauger favours his raw power in the 12 channel. Either way, this suits Eddie Jones as he has previously suggested Tuilagi could be deployed there.
Tuilagi is not a traditional ‘second five eighth’ or second playmaker that a number of international coaches favour and a mould that both the injured Henry Slade and the aforementioned Farrell fit more comfortably into. But his use of power is something that the likes of Wales and New Zealand have employed through Jamie Roberts and Ma’a Nonu, with a more elusive runner at 13.
With Jonathan Joseph beginning to play like he did for England in the Six Nations once again, he is starting to make the 13 shirt his own, despite Elliot Daly’s best efforts to usurp the throne. Pairing Joseph and Tuilagi together is not necessarily the type of centre partnership Jones is used to working with (when you consider some of the second five eighths he used in his time with Australia and the Brumbies), but it is potentially one that could work well for England.
Nor would it be a new partnership: Tuilagi and Joseph started England’s final test on their 2012 summer tour of South Africa, where a team captained by Dylan Hartley managed to hold South Africa to a 14-14 draw. Although Tuilagi and Joseph did not set the world alight on that occasion, both players have since taken their individual games to new levels and it would be a tantalising opportunity to see them paired together against Wales at Twickenham on 12th March, a game that could define both team’s seasons.
With Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade as options at 12 – two very different types of player with Owen Farrell acting as 12 cover – and Joseph and Daly continuing to compete for the outside centre spot, England’s centre options might start to seem a lot healthier than they did previously, particularly given Stuart Lancaster’s disastrous shoe-horning of Sam Burgess into the inside centre role.
Could England finally be moving on from the centre dilemma that has plagued them since 2003? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure though: Manu Tuilagi is too good a player for England not to pick.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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