Manu Tuilagi: I tell my children ‘it’s just pain’ after years of injury hell

Manu Tuilagi and his daughter at the 2019 RWC
Manu Tuilagi's children have become used to their father downplaying the extent of the pain continuing to play with injuries has caused him - ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s just pain. That’s what I tell my kids. It’s just pain. So now, even when they are crying, I say to them: ‘What is it?’ And they answer: ‘It’s just pain!’ But it is.”

Ahead of his 60th and final England Test appearance, Manu Tuilagi is discussing what it is like to play with a broken hand. Tuilagi had come into last year’s World Cup with an underlying but stable fracture in his right hand. Then in the pool stage victory against Samoa, the fracture was jolted in such a way that his knuckle poked through the skin. This is the type of pain that most normal human beings would find intolerable. Tuilagi, however, played through the rest of the World Cup and broke his hand again in the third place play-off against Argentina.

“After the game against Samoa I knew it was broken,” Tuilagi said. “And I thought: ‘Oh, another thing; it’s just another thing in life’. I said to the doctor that did the X-ray ‘Can I play with this?’ He said: ‘It’s up to you.’  I was like, ‘Great, cheers, thank you.’ So that was it.

“As a rugby player, if you can play, you will. There’s no two ways about it. If you can play, you will play and luckily, for me, I was able to play.”

This is a motto that Tuilagi has lived by too readily at times. At the start of the 2014-15 season, Tuilagi pulled an abductor muscle in his groin. Rather than tell a physio, he kept it hidden and started strapping his pubis to keep it together until he heard “loud pop” which was the sound of the bone dislocating. This would spell 15 months on the sidelines, among a distressing long list of injuries that the 32-year-old has suffered.

Manu Tuilagi smiles while training at Bagshot this week
Manu Tuilagi has a refreshingly positive attitude despite all the set-backs he has faced over a 13-year international career - Dan Mullan/RFU Collection via Getty Image

“That’s the story,” Tuilagi said. “It’s been written. It’s what got me here. So I was very lucky to have had that injury. You can say it’s bad or you can say it’s a blessing.”

One stat that has done the rounds is that since making his debut against Wales in 2011, England have played 156 Tests. Tuilagi’s return of 59 caps reflects his wretched luck, given that right up until this campaign he has been considered an automatic selection when fully fit.

Yet there are two ways of looking at that. Outside of his immediate family, no one has spent more time with Tuilagi in recent years than Sale Sharks’ physio Navdeep Sandhu. From his perspective, rather than focusing on all the absences, we should be looking at all the times that Tuilagi has managed to pick himself up off the floor.

“I do get sensitive when people say he is always injured,” Sandhu said. “His body is unbelievable. It responds so well. Yes, he has been injured a lot but he has come back every time and that takes a lot of physical and mental resilience. People forget that. They go down the route of what he has missed rather than how many games he has played in spite of everything he has been through.

“A lot of players would have retired with the injuries he has had but he is still playing for England. That [broken hand] would be a level of pain, most of us would struggle to understand. Rugby players are innately tough but there are still not many who could play through that.”

Since joining Sale from Leicester Tigers in 2020, Tuilagi has had a relatively clean run. The one glaring exception was when he tore his achilles a few months after joining, which many people thought spelt the end of his career. “When he was rehabbing from that I think he was on 43 caps,” Sandhu said. “I asked him what his target was and he said we will see how it goes but in my head I really wanted him to get to 50 caps. For someone of his stature, that really is the minimum requirement. To get to 60 is a huge show of his resilience.”

Since joining Sale, Tuilagi has slimmed down considerably and appears positively svelte compared to the days when muscles appeared to be layered on top of other muscles. This, unfortunately, was the original sin in Sandhu’s view of how Tuilagi was treated early in his career when he was overloaded in the gym

Manu Tuilagi
Manu Tuilagi has slimmed down since joining Sale, following a strength and conditioning programme more suited to his Pacific Islander physique - Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images

Sandhu compares it to building a house without laying the foundations properly, guaranteeing that cracks will constantly appear in the structure. “The English S&C system that has traditionally been based on making players bigger,” Sandhu said. “These [Pacific Island] guys don’t need to be made bigger. They are naturally massive. A lot of it is about balancing the scales and making them more robust in certain ranges.

“A lot of the groin injuries are a product of doing heavy squatting and lifting in the gym, overloading that area and he is young and motivated to just crack on. His genetic code is so much superior to the average human being. He has already got the strength and the size. You don’t need to do heavy weights with Manu and he was doing a lot of really heavy weights. He was squatting as much as some of the props. It just adds too much muscle and it threw him out of balance and then he tried to play through it.”

It would be easy for Tuilagi to feel embittered by these experiences. Instead he laughed his way through most of his final press conference as an England player in the auditorium of Lyon’s Grouprama Stadium. “There are times when you wake up and you’re like: ‘It’s a long way’,” Tuilagi said. “But I always think the love for the game, loving what you do. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to keep going and you’ll get there.”

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