One To Watch: Manu Tuilagi [England]

Whaddaya mean 'one-dimensional'? I can do happy AND sad.

Manu Tuilagi – arnchajusickovim? The Rosbif press have a habit of hyping their players out of the stratosphere at the first sign of international accomplishment. Maybe all national rugby correspondents are guilty of it, and we just pick on poor old Angleterre; certainly the Irish rugby media have never been slow to sing the praises of Keith Earls or Luke Fitzgerald. However, I think it’s fair to say that no Northern Hemisphere rugby press is quicker to acclaim or to damn than the hacks of Fleet Street and Wapping.

Over the last season and a half, perusers of the Sunday Times, the Telegraph and the Grauniad will have witnessed the coronation of at least four ‘world class’ English backs. The first was scrum-half Ben Youngs, on the back of good performances in Australia; then Ben Foden, once he was firmly installed at fullback; then – of course – came Chris Ashton, with his six tries in two Six Nations outings. The most recently fêted is Samoan import Manu Tuilagi, a 20-year old, 110kg power bus in the red-rosed No13 jersey previously graced by the willowy talents of Will Greenwood and Jeremy Guscott.

All of these players are good players, some of them very good. Youngs has undergone the same second-season syndrome that Will Genia went through, and while there’s no guarantee he’ll come out on the other side as spectacularly as Genia has, he’s still going to be a very good player. Ben Foden surprised me last season with his strength in contact and assuredness under the high-ball. I had always thought him to be a smashing counter-attacker but a bit of a flake, prone to turnovers and lapses of concentration i.e. very much in the mould of Sinbad. Nope. He’s a proper full-back, if maybe a little undersized.

It’s harsh to write Ashton off as a one-trick pony, but for a guy who looked so devastating in the first two matches of the Six Nations, he was more or less shut down after that. Video analysis revealed the support lines he favours, and opposition defensive coaches were able to limit his effectiveness from there on in. His four tries against Italy were largely down to Orquera welcoming either him or Toby Flood to Istanbul; in the absence of a dedicated openside in Mauro Bergamasco, there was no cover once the midfield break was made. I really can’t see him making those breaks down Felipe Contepomi’s channel with Juan Leguizamon coming in to reclaim Las Malvinas at every opportunity.

Manu Tuilagi is a peculiar case. No fewer than four of his brothers – Henry, Alesana, Fereti [Freddy] and Anitelia [Andy] – have played international rugby for Samoa, and Manu is as Samoan in playing style as they come. With that said, he has lived in England since he was thirteen or fourteen, and has represented England at numerous underage levels. Personally, I don’t have any particular problem with him turning out for England: the IRB have certain statutes in play, and he conforms with them. It’s just odd to see two brothers playing for two different international teams on different sides of the world.

He’s a real talent as well, especially with ball in hand. The try he scored against Ireland perhaps looked a little better than it actually was; while it was still a cracking score, Keith Earls’ defending was absolutely appalling. If you go back to the Leinster vs Leicester HEC 2010/11 quarter-final, you can see the effective coralling job that D’Arcy and O’Driscoll were able to do on the young Anglo-Samoan. While he still had some decent moments, it wasn’t highlight reel stuff.

Some English commentators are comparing him to New Zealand No12 Ma’a Nonu. The comparisons are legitimate [or at least quasi-legitimate, Peter King fans], but I’d say that they’d be closer if they were with the Nonu of three or four years ago. In the meantime – and as the Mole has previously noted in his preview of the NZ RWC11 squad – Nonu has developed a very fine distribution game to complement his already effective offloads in contact. Tuilagi has nothing of the sort. He’s a cul-de-sac when the ball comes his way.

I feel a bit guilty saying that Tuilagi is the one to watch in England’s games. He’s an incredibly obvious choice. There’s a distinction between highlighting players in ‘big’ teams who get plenty of media exposure and those in ‘small’ teams whose players play in different leagues and who rarely come together at international level. Thus while Gorgodze is clearly the biggest name in Georgian rugby, loads of people still wouldn’t know who he is in Britain and Ireland. The same with Naps Nalaga, especially because he played his rugby in France [although he has recently ended his exile to sign with Western Force in Australia].

England have plenty of players worth watching – Courtney Lawes is a very good operator, and both Tom Wood and Tom Croft are excellent blindsides. Nick Easter is a much better No8 than most people give him credit for.

Tuilagi, though, is definitely going to provide some good viewing. He’s a tremendously powerful runner with real explosion over the first five yards, and will prove a handful for most defences. He’s also a big hitter as a tackler, just like his brothers before him. However, there are holes in his game.

I’m still a firm believer that whatever about a No12 being a battering ram, a No13 isn’t just some sort of inside winger … there has to be some guile and awareness of space, both of the opposition in defence and of where your running can create room for your wingers. There needs to be good distribution and a finisher’s eye. I’m not sure that Tuilagi has any real grasp at all of the subtleties of the position, either in attack or defense.

Rushing out of the line to lay out your opposite number is all well and good, but if the chap is willing to sacrifice himself, it creates a big dogleg in the defensive line and a gaping hole behind the gunner for the fullback to race through.

Tuilagi is impetuous and not at all well-schooled at international level. Further along the tournament, wily defense coaches will look to lure him down dead-ends and take advantage of his belief in his own running power, and attack coaches will try and sneak a try through tempting him out of the line for the big hit. In the meantime though, he’s going to have some more highlight reel moments to add to this one:

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