Posolo Tuilagi, the 19-year-old nephew of Manu and son of former Leicester No 8 Henry, is set to make his senior France debut against Ireland on Friday night after being called up to the bench in place of the ruled-out Romain Taofifenua.
The hotly anticipated clash in Marseille, with the two Six Nations favourites kicking off the championship, will mark a meteoric rise for the 6ft 4in, 150kg lock. Tuilagi made his professional debut at his boyhood club, Perpignan, less than 18 months ago and this time last year, aged just 18, he was preparing for the Under-20s Six Nations, in which he played a leading role in France’s victory.
Tuilagi, who will become the seventh member of the Tuilagi dynasty to play Test rugby should he make his debut off the bench at the Stade Velodrome, has this season emerged as a force at senior level in the French game, too. He has been a regular starter for Perpignan – the club at which his father retired after his departure from Leicester – and it was this run of eye-catching performances that led to him receiving his first call-up to Fabien Galthié’s squad last Sunday.
After having been called up to the training squad last week, the lock was elevated to the senior squad on Sunday before being released back to Perpignan to take part in this weekend’s fixture against Top 14 league leaders Racing 92. Illness to Taofifenua has resulted in Tuilagi receiving an 11th-hour call-up, however, for a potential debut in Marseille.
Tuilagi forms part of a 6:2 bench split with fellow second row Cameron Woki also included among the replacements, although the latter can also cover flanker. Yoram Moefana, preferred to World Cup breakout star Louis Bielle-Biarrey on the left wing for the match against the reigning Grand Slam champions on Friday night, this week described Tuilagi as a “lorry”.
“Posolo is ready,” added William Servat, France’s scrum coach on Thursday. “He has spent part of the week training with us. We were able to keep him until Wednesday; in this time, he fitted in well and was able to take part in all phase-play training. We spent a bit more time with him today on the line-out, with Laurent [Sempéré, line-out coach] but off the back of what he has been able to produce in training and in matches for the under-20s, it is only natural that he should take Romain’s place.”
All of Tuilagi’s rugby relatives have represented Samoa at international level except for Manu, the England centre, meaning the lock will become the first French import of the dynasty should he make his debut as expected on Friday night. Despite not owning a French passport, Samoan-born Tuilagi qualifies having moved to France aged three. Manu Tuilagi, Posolo’s uncle, also qualified to play for Samoa before making his England debut in 2011, having swapped islands aged 13. Posolo Tuilagi has never lived in England.
‘French public expect a grand slam’
Tuilagi becomes the first success story of the post-World Cup agreement between the French clubs, represented by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), and the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR). Although Galthié is no longer able to call up 42 players, he is still able to select a rotating group of 40. There is a 34-player squad selected while six “supplementary training” players attend from Sunday to Wednesday each week. Last week, Tuilagi was one such player before impressing in camp and receiving a full call-up. The French head coach, who cannot select a supplementary player from any of the four most represented clubs in his squad, has compiled rankings broken down by position and works his way down when selecting who should receive a taste of training at Les Bleus’ base in Marcoussis.
“It’s been done just so that more players are available to their club,” Simon Gillham, Brive president, told Telegraph Sport. “And because 42 was considered a bit excessive from every point of view, but it was all guns blazing for the World Cup. There has been a bit of a belt-tightening exercise at the FFR. Florian [Grill, Bernard Laporte’s successor as president] has declared a €10m shortfall on what he had when he came on board and he’s looking at ways to make that up.”
Both France and Ireland arrive in Marseille on the back of World Cup disappointments, having exited the tournament at the quarter-final stage despite arriving as joint favourites – a tag which applies to this year’s Six Nations, too. The victor in Marseille will be favourites for the Championship, with anything less considered an underachievement across the Channel.
“Fabien has the backing, sort of ‘dot dot dot’...,” added Gilham. “France have Ireland and England at home so the public will expect a Grand Slam. The ‘dot dot dot’ is a bit. .. yeah, it’s fine, but we’ll be watching now. The clubs have made an awful lot of sacrifices but we continue to want the French team to do well. We won’t settle for anything less than the best because we have all been making sacrifices.
“Fabien has been quite lucky – and it was Éric Bayle of Canal+ who said this – because the viewing figures of the Top 14 and ProD2 have been amazing since the World Cup, and they were worried about a drop-off due to the quarter-final exit. But everyone in France, rightly or wrongly, has been blaming the fact that France didn’t progress further on the referee. So, there has not been any meaningful post-mortem, because everyone has been saying it was the ref’s fault. So Fabien and the players have got off quite lightly on that one.”