FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union – Rugby World Cup 2019 – Pool C – England v Tonga – Sapporo Dome, Sapporo, Japan – September 22, 2019 England’s Manu Tuilagi in action with Tonga’s Cooper Vuna REUTERS/Peter Cziborra
TOKYO – When your own name was inspired by the Rugby World Cup, you are perhaps bound to place great importance on the tournament and England’s Manu Tuilagi is determined to show his very best form in what he thinks will be his final opportunity.
Etuale Manusamoa Tuilagi was given his middle name in honour of the Western Samoa squad, including his brother Freddie, that would make a fairytale run to the quarter-finals of the 1991 tournament a few months after his birth.
The powerful centre’s own relationship with rugby’s showpiece event has been complicated but, free of injury and by all accounts matured by parenthood, the 28-year-old looks to finally have a chance to put his imprint on it.
Arrested for jumping off a ferry in Auckland harbour at the end of his first campaign in 2011, Tuilagi failed to feature at all in 2015 after being dropped by England when he was convicted of assault.
England assistant coach John Mitchell said that he felt Tuilagi, who scored two tries in England’s opener against Tonga, had unfinished business with the World Cup.
Tuilagi politely disagreed.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to go out there and just try and be the best,” he told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday.
“There’s no finished or unfinished business there for me, I’m just really enjoying playing rugby.
“Especially with this team… just the opportunity to be around them, and train with them, and learn from them, I’m happy with that.”
Mitchell also revealed that Tuilagi was known in the squad as “Chief” and suggested it was an honorific bestowed out of respect for his leadership. Again Tuilagi disagreed.
“The name ‘Chief’ comes from back home, we have chiefs, the chiefs of the village,” said Tuilagi, who was born in Samoa but moved to Britain when he was 13.
“But for me, I’ve just got to do my job the best I can. Just take it a day at a time. Focus on one training session at a time.
“I have a job to do, all the boys have jobs to do, and if we all do our jobs individually well, the team will look after itself.”
Tuilagi’s job is carrying the ball with a power and at a pace that few other players can muster, a skill he most famously showcased when he inspired England to a victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012.
ENJOY THE MOMENT
Long spells of injury, as well as a suspension or two, have restricted him to 36 England tests in the eight years since his debut, however, and Tuilagi said he was now more dedicated to training and preparation.
“I can never be the old me again, it’s different now, the old me used to just go and play and train and nowadays I need to warm up for 30 minutes before I start,” he laughed.
“I’d say I enjoy it more now. I enjoy it more now because I know it’s not going to last forever. It’s not going to last long so I’ve got to enjoy the moment while it’s here.”
Although Tuilagi said that another World Cup in 2023 was probably beyond him — “I’m too old mate, I feel it” — he was relishing playing at outside centre in an England backline with dual playmakers George Ford and Owen Farrell.
“I love it, love it,” he said. “Their knowledge of the game is unbelievable. I try and stay as close to them as possible to try and learn.
“The way they see the game is a different level so it’s unbelievable playing outside of them.”
The trio are likely to start on Saturday when England face their first real test of the opening round in Japan against Pool C rivals Argentina, the same team Tuilagi faced in his first World Cup match in 2011.
“It was a tough game,” he said of England’s 13-9 victory in Dunedin. “And it’s probably going to be another tough game on Saturday.”
(By Nick Mulvenney: Editing by Clare Fallon)