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England's hopes rest on the fitness of world-class Tuilagi

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England centre Manu Tuilagi tries to burst through a Bundee Aki tackle during last year’s Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

England centre Manu Tuilagi tries to burst through a Bundee Aki tackle during last year’s Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

England centre Manu Tuilagi tries to burst through a Bundee Aki tackle during last year’s Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

Eddie Jones raised the hopes of a nation ahead of next weekend's showdown with Ireland when he revealed that Manu Tuilagi has rejoined the England squad.

If you read the small print of the statement, however, the RFU point out that Tuilagi, like Henry Slade, is in camp "for rehabilitation" rather than being fit and available for the Twickenham clash.

Such is Tuilagi's importance, you can understand why England were so eager to put that kind of positive message out there.

It remains to be seen if the powerful centre will have recovered from a groin injury in time but one thing is for sure, England will give him every chance to prove his fitness.

Already without Billy Vunipola, England have proved in their opening two Six Nations games that they are a very different proposition without their world-class No 8 and midfielder.

Factors

The last time Ireland won in Twickenham, when they clinched the 2018 Grand Slam, neither Tuilagi nor Vunipola were involved.

There were other factors at play last year, but it was no coincidence that England beat Ireland in both of their meetings with their key men in situ.

Tuilagi was outstanding last season as he reminded everyone of his stunning game-breaking ability in the Six Nations and later at the World Cup.

On his day, he is unplayable and that the Leicester Tigers player is still only 28 is a reminder of how long he has been on the scene.

The first time he inflicted damage on Ireland was during his debut international season in 2011 when his early try set England on their way to a 20-9 win in Dublin. He has enjoyed plenty of other good days since then too.

Had he not been crippled by repeated long-term setbacks, Tuilagi would be talked about more often as one of the great modern-day centres, but, as it is, he often gets left out of those kind of conversations.

His off-field misdemeanours haven't helped in that regard either, yet Jones has been able to get the best out of him - how the Australian would love to have him fit for every game.

Andy Farrell has also worked closely with Tuilagi, so he won't need to be reminded about the threat that he poses to his team. If further proof is required, it is worth considering that the 2013 Lion has never lost against Ireland, winning all five of his previous encounters.

Tuilagi has formed a formidable centre partnership with Owen Farrell, who hasn't looked himself without his bruising partner outside of him.

Jones recognises how important he is to the "brutally physical" game-plan that he wants his side to play, yet Tuilagi has shown in recent years that he has added more subtle nuances to his game.

Jonathan Joseph has been asked to fill the void since he suffered the setback in the opening defeat to France, but he doesn't pose the same kind of threat as Tuilagi.

Farrell will have been hugely encouraged by how well Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw gelled in the win over Wales, but Ireland will need their centres to hit even greater heights, just as much as England need Tuilagi back.

So much so that it is not unrealistic to suggest that their hopes rest on him being fit, because without him and Billy Vunipola, England's fear factor is significantly reduced.

They will want to keep Ireland guessing regarding Tuilagi's fitness, but Farrell will have laid his cards on the table by naming his team two days before Jones shows his hand.

Let the mind games begin.

Irish Independent