By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – The Twickenham faithful have always had a special affection for Manu Tuilagi so it was no surprise that their loudest roar on Saturday came when the big centre ran in the third of England’s eight tries late in the first half of their 57-17 thrashing of Ireland.
Tuilagi’s performance in the famed 2012 victory over New Zealand is still talked about as one of the great individual displays but a shocking run of injuries since then has meant his international appearances have come in fits and starts.
During that time various England coaches have sought to solve the midfield dilemma, always aware that Tuilagi could be the answer, but rarely getting the chance to test the theory for a sustained run of games.
Finally, having overcome the groin injury that became a serious issue after he hid it from his club’s medical staff, Tuilagi is putting a run of tests together where he is delivering timely reminders of his remarkable combination of power and movement with the ball and fierce tackling without it.
He was certainly helped on Saturday by England’s dominant set piece and the quick ball fizzing his way from the revived 10-12 combination of George Ford and Owen Farrell, but his overall display made him a worthy recipient of the man of the match award.
“Every carry he made today was 100 percent,” said winger Joe Cokanasiga, who also had a great day with two tries.
“When you see carries like that and how he wants to get involved in the game it inspires you to do the same. He looked back to his best,” added the 21-year-old.
“It’s an honour to be on a plane alongside him. He was my idol growing up. It’s all a dream come true.”
Lock Maro Itoje, another tryscorer and another man of the match contender, was similarly impressed.
“Manu is an awesome player, extremely talented and when he is at his best he is an absolute monster and it is great to have him in our side,” he said.
“I have played against him a couple of times at club level and I know how deadly he can be.”
Coach Eddie Jones declined to be drawn on whether the Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi axis would be his preferred combination for the World Cup, with currently injured centre Henry Slade also very much in the mix with Farrell potentially moved back to flyhalf.
But he could not hide his pleasure at having the crowd favourite back doing what he does best.
“He’s in a good place, he’s got a smile on his face,” he said. “He’s getting fitter, he’s about 80% at the moment, we’ve still got a little bit left to go with him and when he gets there he’ll be a handful.”
England’s all-round display was hailed by former British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan – who was far from impressed by the abject Irish.
“These two teams looked worlds apart,” he said after England posted their highest score and biggest winning margin in the fixture.
“I’ve rarely seen England look better, and they have clearly learnt the lessons of their games against Wales to get to a stage where they look fully-loaded and ready for the World Cup.”
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)