By Peter Rutherford
SAPPORO, Japan (Reuters) – After waiting eight years to return to rugby’s biggest stage it was no surprise Manu Tuilagi grabbed his opportunity with both hands on Sunday with a brace of tries helping England to a 35-3 victory over Tonga at the Sapporo Dome.
A shocking list of injuries combined with a series of off-fied controversies prevented Tuilagi from fulfilling his potential with England, leaving fans wondering if they would ever see a repeat of the devastating form of 2012 when he engineered a stunning win over the All Blacks.
Given his history there is a reluctance to assume his troubles are all behind him, but his performances since returning to the side suggest he will be the final piece in the puzzle for England’s midfield.
Maro Itoje hailed the impact of the Samoan-born centre on Sunday’s game.
“Manu was outstanding and is showing the world what a great player he is,” said the lock. “I think he is getting stronger and this is the longest period for some time that he has been healthy.
“In the last two years in the England camp it has been amazing to watch to see his preparation and it is so professional. He is getting his body right and it is paying dividends.”
Tuilagi’s tries showed two very different sides to his game.
The first a display of brute strength, the 28-year-old shipped the ball off the back of a five-metre scrum and rumbled across the line despite several defenders trying to drag him to the ground.
Tuilagi’s second try was all about pace and timing, haring through the channel to offer flying winger Jonny May the inside option and racing through untouched to score.
England scrumhalf Ben Youngs, Tuilagi’s Leicester team mate, said the big centre was in “devastating” form.
“He is a physical force you have to try and stop and I am very pleased he is on our team,” he said.
“It’s eight years since his last World Cup try and it is crazy, and that is why he is enjoying it so much. He is one of the best players in the world and makes people want to come and watch at the stadium or on TV and he did that magnificently today.”
(Reporting by Peter Rutherford in Sapporo; Editing by Stephen Coates)