The pros and cons of Manu Tuilagi’s England recall

England's Manui Tuilagi/The pros and cons of Manu Tuilagi's England recall
Tuilagi will start on the bench against Franace - Action Images/Lee Smith

It seems it will be 60 caps and out for Manu Tuilagi if he is required against France on Saturday night in Lyon. A catalogue of injuries has severely restricted his number of England appearances, but Steve Borthwick has drafted the 32-year-old onto the bench for what looks to be one last rattle.

The decision is more intriguing because Borthwick is the first in a line of coaches – breaking rank from Martin Johnson, Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones before him – to have omitted Tuilagi for reasons other than injury. Tuilagi was available for the beginning of last season’s Six Nations, yet did not feature until the last game against Ireland.

He returned to the front-line side for the duration of the World Cup, as Borthwick put a premium on experience, but has been a specialist trainer this Six Nations since joining the wider squad prior to the Scotland game. Why bring him back now, then? And what are the risks?

Pros – A talisman to add energy

For England to consolidate their performance against Ireland will not be easy. They expended immense energy and a great deal of emotion last weekend. They will have spoken about how they can avoid a flat finish to this tournament.

The return of Tuilagi, and with it the subplot of a probable Test farewell for a hugely popular figure among the group, brings a different stimulus to spur them. It can act in a similar manner to Danny Care’s 100th cap, which seemingly helped to inspire England into an excellent display.

Borthwick keeps elder statesmen around squads to impart wisdom and embolden younger colleagues. The introduction of players like Theo Dan, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Chandler Cunningham-South have been eased by more senior team-mates.

Tuilagi is a gregarious character with experience of the very biggest matches. Some 12 years ago, in his first Six Nations, he scored a fine try in a 24-22 victory at the Stade de France. Over the past month, his demeanour is sure to have benefitted those around him. Peers will be lifted by a desire to repay Tuilagi, and every scrap of motivation counts. If that first part seems slightly fluffy and intangible, England supporters can be assured that Borthwick will have been assiduous about the tactical connotations. Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence were picked together for most World Cup matches, the latter usually on the bench to ensure England would stay solid in the 12 channel throughout.

Manu Tuilagi - The pros and cons of Manu Tuilagi's England recall
Tuilagi will make his 60th cap for England if he features in Le Crunch - Getty Images/Alex Livesey

The roles are reversed on Saturday, with Lawrence starting and Tuilagi in the No 23 shirt, to combat the power of France and offer carrying thrust. With George Furbank at full-back as well, there is a possibility for a Tuilagi-Lawrence midfield late on.

Elliot Daly and Tommy Freeman are potential outside centres to back up Henry Slade. France, however, have Gaël Fickou and Nicolas Depoortère with Yoram Moefana to come off the bench. All three are strapping athletes. Borthwick, would probably be nervous about a centre partnership comprising two of Slade, Daly and Freeman if Lawrence needed to withdraw.

The work of Aled Walters will be under the microscope, clearly, because Tuilagi has not played in a game since Dec 22, when he injured his groin during Sale Sharks’ win over Saracens. But Borthwick will be confident in his conditioning specialist, who got Tuilagi into good shape for the World Cup. And the man himself should know when he is ready.

As France themselves reinforced against Wales, and England have shown throughout this Six Nations, the use of replacements shapes and often decides modern Test matches. In the absence of Cunningham-South, who has injected dynamism, 20 minutes of a pumped-up Tuilagi would lift the visitors in Lyon, perhaps as the hosts are emptying artillery off their own bench.

Cons – A small window and wing worries

Not all injuries are equal and a pair of backline casualties scuppered Ireland’s six-two bench strategy at Twickenham. Even if Jamison Gibson-Park deputised impressively out wide, following the withdrawals of Calvin Nash and then Ciarán Frawley, Andy Farrell would have much preferred the 32-year-old at scrum-half rather than spending half an hour on the wing.

Without Feyi-Waboso, the way England’s match-day 23 is set up leaves them particularly vulnerable to either Daly or Freeman going down. At the World Cup, they had Joe Marchant to cover wing. He, ironically, is now in France with Stade Français. Would they shift Furbank and bring on Marcus Smith at full-back if Daly or Freeman limped off early on? Slade has experience at full-back, too. What about the Eddie Jones policy of Ben Earl covering wing? Maybe not.

Whatever the contingencies, Borthwick is sure to have worked them out and England will have drilled them in training this week. Regardless, two injuries in the back three – far from impossible – would be a big worry. First off, relying on Tuilagi to last an extended period feels fraught with risk.

On top of that, and though France have not been at their most fluent in this Six Nations, they still possess serious firepower. Damian Penaud and Louis Bielle-Biarrey are explosive, elusive runners. Léo Barré, the 21-year-old full-back, has put together a mesmerising highlight reel for Stade Français this season. England will not want to give those players one-on-ones, let alone against defenders that could be vulnerable in space.

The return of Tuilagi is not without jeopardy. Yet calculated boldness – in selection and in tactical approach – has been a theme of this Six Nations for England and Borthwick. Tuilagi’s swansong rounds off the campaign fittingly.

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