If there is one man England are keen to see back fit and singing the anthems at Twickenham, it is Manu Tuilagi. With the possible exception of Storm Eunice, few are better equipped to flatten anything in their path and the red-rose management are advising Wales to batten down the hatches when they head to Twickenham this weekend.
With their opening-round defeat in Scotland having, in effect, left England needing to win all their remaining games to be title contenders, the news that Tuilagi is back fully fit and firing has been a tonic for the troops. Barring any mishaps in training this week, he is set to feature in a Six Nations fixture for the first time in 721 days.
His last championship appearance was against Wales nearly two years ago, when he scored a try and then collected a red card in a breathless 33-30 home win. Now, having proved his fitness for Sale Sharks following the hamstring injury he suffered while scoring his fine early try against the world champions, South Africa, in November, he has impressed the England management in training and poses a clear threat to Welsh ambitions.
According to England’s defence coach, Anthony Seibold, the Tuilagi effect is significant whether or not England are in possession. “On both sides of the ball he’s a powerful weapon,” says Seibold, who is no stranger to big physical units from his time in Australian rugby league. “That’s been him for the last 11 years, carrying the ball. But just as important, if not more so, his contact around the defence is very good.
“You saw the first couple of actions against Quins the other day. He played the last 30 minutes and his first two or three shots in contact were dominant ones. He brings a physical presence, there’s no doubt about that. He also brings a lot of experience and smarts in terms of what we’re trying to do.”
If that makes the 30-year-old a “big in” from the management’s perspective, the centre’s experience and popularity are also valuable at a time when England are busily rebuilding. “He’s got that personality and character that people get a lot of confidence from,” says Seibold. “Manu is a real glue [player], there’s no doubt. He’s a really enjoyable guy to coach.”
All that said, Tuilagi’s record against Wales is not as imposing as it might be. In five previous Six Nations encounters he has finished on the winning side only twice, with one of those coming as a replacement. He has never won in Cardiff in an England jersey and, including World Cup warm-ups, has registered two tries in eight fixtures.
Those figures also reflect the long, injury-enforced gaps in Tuilagi’s career, which at one stage prevented him from starting a Test for England for almost five years. His value to England, even so, remains high as Eddie Jones seeks to find a straight-running accomplice for Marcus Smith to enhance England’s midfield balance.
Elliot Daly and Joe Marchant have filled in alongside Henry Slade against Scotland and Italy respectively but England’s inability to kick on in the second half in Rome highlighted the fact they are a work in progress. “We know we need to improve, there is no doubt about that,” says Seibold. “We weren’t infatuated by the scoreboard or parts of the performance against Italy. To be the team we want to become, we need to be consistent. Regardless of where we play, that’s what we’re trying to drive.”
Wasps’ Alfie Barbeary could yet be another forceful contributor during this tournament, with Seibold suggesting he is not in the squad simply to make up the numbers. “We wouldn’t have had Alfie at this camp if we didn’t see the potential for him to push into this squad,” said the Australian, who has been working on improving Barbeary’s defensive work-rate. “Once he improves that part of his game he is going to be one hell of a player. He is as good a ball carrier as we have in the group.”
Seibold is looking forward to coming up against Wales, where he took his first coaching role with the Celtic Crusaders rugby league side in 2006. His middle daughter was born in Bridgend, and he used to live in the nearby village of Tondu. “My first coaching job was in Wales. I’d finished playing and was a schoolteacher back in Australia. The RFL was setting up a rugby league franchise in South Wales, so one of the Brisbane Broncos assistant coaches asked me to come out and start the team because I’d played over here for Hull KR and London Broncos. It was a good experience.”
During his time in south Wales, Seibold also spent valuable hours with his former team-mate Shaun Edwards. “He was the Wales defence coach at the time, so I spent a bit of time observing their sessions back in 2008. Shaun invited me in on a number of occasions. Their performances over a long period of time, first with Warren Gatland and now with Wayne Pivac as their head coach, have been very consistent.”
Now, with Tuilagi’s assistance, he is aiming to batter the nation he once called home.