It looks like the clock is ticking on Manu Tuilagi’s World Cup chances, let alone his chances of playing in the green, red and white of Tigers again this season.
When fit and firing the 23-year-old wrecking ball of a centre is one of the most devastating attacking assets in world rugby and one of the biggest tackling defenders in the game. The problem is it has been an awfully long time since England or Leicester have benefitted from his presence.
Samoan-born Tuilagi injured his groin in Leicester’s Champions Cup tie against Ulster in October and hasn’t been named in a match day squad since.
It was his second groin injury of the season, first picking up the injury in Leicester’s second Aviva Premiership game of the season against Exeter back in September. He missed three games and was rushed back into action only to get injured again. It was initially hoped that he would be back within eight weeks, it’s now been 20.
During an appearance on BT Sport’s The Clare Balding Show shortly after his injury, Tuilagi said: “I went to accelerate when I got the ball and there was no one in front of me and I thought ‘I am in here.’ I was about 20 metres from the try line. But after the first two steps I just heard a pop and I thought, ‘Oh no, it has gone.’
“The pain straight away was unbearable. Normally I would try to run it off but I was on the floor and when I stood up I could just feel it badly.
“It is the most painful injury I have experienced. I felt it straight away and it didn’t go away. Sometimes when you have a collision you get pain, but it goes away. This one didn’t.”
The suggestion now is he might not make it at all this season, and with Leicester into the business end of the season where they really need to win every game, including some incredibly difficult matches against Saracens, Wasps and Northampton, they can barely be easing in a half fit Tuilagi.
In recent weeks Leicester Tigers direct or rugby has labelled his big game winner a ‘slow healer’ after yet another setback. He said: “He’s improving all the time but it’s a long process.
“The likelihood now is he may not play this season.”
The pressure for Tuilagi to be back on the pitch making defenders cower at the thought of the 6ft, 17st 4lb monster running down their channel, is even greater this year because not only is it a World Cup year but it’s the rarest of things, a home tournament.
Cockerill said: “The likelihood is he will be fit for June and he’ll join England for their World Cup camp. Hopefully he’ll be involved in the World Cup warm-ups and have a huge say in how England do.”
Tuilagi has been involved with England during their second place finish in the RBS Six Nations behind Ireland, not playing but he has been linking up with the elite squad at Pennyhill to rehab his injury.
England head coach Stuart Lancaster said: “He is making good progress and is doing straight line running, but he still has some way to go.”
Before England took on Scotland, Lancaster said: “I think he’ll come good at the end of the season. Certainly Phil Pask [England physio] has done a good job with him, but it’s not in the near future. By the end of the season he’ll be back playing.
“It is about making sure his groin and the healing around it is strong enough to cope with the forces he puts through it. He is a powerful man and he needs to make sure the groin has healed sufficiently. It is a step-by-step process to make sure he does not re-injure it, so that is why people are very cautious.”
So in conclusion some very mixed messages.
The problem is if Tuilagi doesn’t play for Leicester again this season he will have just three international warm-up games before the opening game of the World Cup when England open their tournament on September 18 against Fiji at Twickenham.
The warm-up games are home and away against France before taking on Six Nations champions Ireland. So no easy games to ease back into.
The groin injury is by no means an isolated incident either. When Tuilagi broke into the team as a teenager he struggled with hamstring injuries and was regularly seen heavily strapped up. Injuries are a way of life for professional rugby players, particularly in the modern game where players get bigger and the physical demands greater. But Tuilagi has had more than his fair share of time on the sidelines. In 2011 he missed six weeks after breaking his cheekbone against Gloucester, in 2013 he missed the opening of the Six Nations with an ankle injury and even during the British and Irish Lions winning tour of Australia he featured less than most people had expected after picking up a mild shoulder injury during the warm-up games.
He came off the bench during the third test but should have been challenging for a starting spot in the test match XV for every match.
Then came the real problems, a pectoral tear against Newcastle in September 2013 saw him miss all the Autumn internationals and only return for the final match of the 2014 Six Nations against Italy, scoring on his return. The result of all those injuries is minimal appearances for both club and country in recent years.
This season Tuilagi has made just four appearances for Leicester, and his average games per season is not an awful lot higher. In 2013-14 he played 10 games for his club, 23 the season before and just 13 the season before that. In fact it was his debut season, 2010-11, when he was most regularly seen by the Tigers faithful making 26 appearances.
In 2012 Tuilagi was capped 10 times for his country, starring in the victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in the final international of the year. But since then he has only pulled on the red rose badge of England on eight occasions and four of them were as a replacement.
During that time his rivals for an England centre spot have been circling the waggons and in some cases making a real case for inclusion in the starting XV. Bath’s Jonathan Joseph has come in from the rugby wilderness and is a completely different type of centre to Tuilagi but is now probably the first name on Lancaster’s team sheet after a stunning Six Nations championship which saw him score four tries. Whereas Tuilagi bulldozes his way over the gain line Joseph has been bamboozling defences with his footwork.
The talk now is whether Tuilagi can play out of position at inside centre, where he has played before for both club and the Lions, with Joseph, That is if he can get fit in time. The others staking a claim for a centre spot are: Gloucester captain Billy Twelvetrees, Northampton’s Luther Burrell, Bath’s Kyle Eastmond and Saracens’ Brad Barritt - with Exeter’s Henry Slade and Bath’s rugby league convert Sam Burgess outside chances to push for a place.
But before all that there is the small matter of deciding who is crowned Aviva Premiership champion. If Leicester want to be in the mix they could really do with a result in their match on Saturday away at Saracens’ Allianze Park. However the hosts are riding on a high having beaten Racing Metro 12-11 in Paris this weekend to reach the European Champions Cup semi-final.