Manu Tuilagi’s destroying of New Zealand matched Beckham v Greece and Flintoff in 2005 Ashes

Manu Tuilagi breaks away from Richie McCaw - Manu Tuilagi's destroying of New Zealand matched Beckham v Greece and Flintoff in 2005 Ashes

There are certain individual performances that have created their own mythology in English sporting history this century. In football, many would pick David Beckham against Greece in 2001. For cricket, Andrew Flintoff at Edgbaston in the 2005 Ashes. Then in rugby there is Manu Tuilagi against New Zealand in 2012.

The 38-21 victory remains England’s most emphatic over New Zealand but it was all the more impressive given the context. While England had suffered defeats to Australia and South Africa that autumn, the All Blacks arrived at Twickenham on the back of a 21-game unbeaten run. “It was a good win, to be fair,” Tuilagi says in his typically understated style. “Yeah, it was a good win.”

Tuilagi was just 21 years old. Until that point, the biggest splash he had made as an international player was being fished out of Auckland harbour after jumping off a ferry. His performance that afternoon at Twickenham would create even more far-reaching ripples, as a reference point that beguiled successive England coaches.

Even though Tuilagi played in just 34 minutes of England’s record-equalling 18-match winning run under Eddie Jones, he could not help but refer back to that night against the All Blacks. “I know he can demolish the All Blacks, so he’s worth time, he’s worth effort and worth a lot of care,” Jones said in 2017. “I don’t think anyone’s done it with the Lions… No one has ripped them apart – apart from Manu.”

Manu Tuilgai scores in 2012 - Manu Tuilagi's destroying of New Zealand matched Beckham v Greece and Flintoff in 2005 Ashes
Manu Tuilagi runs in the third of England's three tries against New Zealand in 2012 - Getty Images/Clive Rose

Tuilagi started the game wearing the widest of grins through the haka before he started bouncing the All Blacks around like they were toddlers. Watching from the bench at Twickenham before coming on as a replacement, fly-half Freddie Burns found his jaw on the floor.

“The All Blacks were by far and away the best team rugby has probably ever seen at that stage in terms of how dominant they were at the time,” Burns said. “No one really thought we had a chance and then someone like Manu was like the first guy to step up and show that you can dominate the All Blacks. We were thinking this All Blacks team is so good, who can step up and take them on? Then you have Manu, who must have been only 21, and he took the game by the scruff of the neck.”

Somewhat astonishingly, Tuilagi was not even man of the match that day, flanker Tom Wood won that particular honour. Yet all everyone was talking about was Manu, who scored one try, by intercepting Kieran Read, and set up two more. First he drew in Israel Dagg and Cory Jane before delivering a cut inside pass to centre partner Brad Barritt. Even more impressive was the way he set up Chris Ashton by powering through Dan Carter’s tackle and then fending off Richie McCaw and Aaron Smith.

Even now Burns considers it the greatest individual England performance that he has borne witness to. “I don’t think he was overhyped at all,” Burns said. “I remember him setting up that try where he goes through Dan Carter and then fends Richie McCaw. I think it was the first time that All Black team was shown to be mortal.

“He was the focal point and they struggled to contain him. Once you got on the front foot and there’s quick ball then there’s a whole different game. But he was the catalyst for that and I don’t think I have ever seen someone play on that level.”

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