Why Manu Tuilagi's new Sale contract is the best news in a bleak year for Eddie Jones

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Charles Richardson
·4 min read
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Manu Tuilagi playing for England - The importance of Manu Tuilagi to Eddie Jones' England - GETTY IMAGES
Manu Tuilagi playing for England - The importance of Manu Tuilagi to Eddie Jones' England - GETTY IMAGES

It has been over a year - and a global pandemic - since Manu Tuilagi last pulled on the white jersey of England. The bulldozing centre's last appearance for Eddie Jones' side came when he was sent off in the final stages of the 2020 victory over Wales, in front of a capacity crowd at Twickenham. Those were the days.

Since September 2020, the Sale centre has been battling an Achilles injury that has kept him on the sidelines for all of the 2020/21 season to date. Tuilagi missed the whole of England's dismal Six Nations campaign earlier this year - and his attacking thrust, bludgeoning at the heart of Jones' team, was sorely lacking.

Tuilagi is due to return to Sale action next month. While his return will please Jones and, perhaps, Lions head coach Warren Gatland, what will have pleased the England head coach more is the news that came out of the North West on Monday, that his venerated centre has signed a new contract to the keep him with the Sharks - and, crucially, available for England selection - until the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Looking at cold, hard statistics, England's win ratio under Jones does not differ too greatly whether Tuilagi plays - both are high - but the importance of the former Leicester centre on the direction and efficacy of England's attack cannot be overstated. What the numbers cannot narrate, too, is that in some of the biggest wins of Jones' England tenure - Ireland in Dublin, 2019, and the World Cup semi-final win against New Zealand - Tuilagi has played a starring role.

This will come as no surprise to Jones, who is acutely aware of Tuilagi's importance. Back in 2018, as Tuilagi was working his way back to fitness after yet another injury, Jones said of his star pupil: “I do know he can demolish the All Blacks, so he's worth time, he's worth effort and worth a lot of care.

“At the moment everything looks pretty positive so we’ve just got to pray that this positivity keeps going and he has a period where he is injury-free and can show what he is capable of.”

Jones was right to pray that Tuilagi roared back to form and fitness, to "show what he was capable of". The 29-year-old became an undroppable cog in an English midfield that was only one win away from rugby immortality, lifting the Webb Ellis Cup. Jones knows, too, that in that outside centre position, Tuilagi can perform at a level, and cause the kind of havoc, that few others in world rugby are able to emulate.

Looking at the numbers, when Tuilagi starts for England the team scores more tries and points, beats more defenders, makes more carries, clean breaks and offloads than when he is on the treatment table. His influence on England's attacking backs, providing the ballast off which their pacey but largely lightweight back-three can thrive, has been often vital.

Attempting to fill Tuilagi's boots

In Tuilagi's continual absence, however, Jones has looked at several options to fill the Sale centre's sizeable 13 jersey. Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Ben Te'o and Ollie Lawrence have all given a decent fist - when allowed, in Lawrence's case - to make the spot their own, but none has come close to matching Tuilagi's all-round potency at outside centre.

The Sale centre has, on average, scored more tries and beat more defenders than any of his rivals for the outside centre berth, and has made the joint-most clean breaks alongside Slade. Tuilagi's gainline ferocity underlines his value, however; the average number of dominant carries he makes, plus the regularity with which he gets over the gainline, is unparalleled.

Tuilagi's rotten record with injuries dictates that he is not a player on whom Jones can consistently rely; he is not a player around whom a team can be built. But Jones also knows that his rampaging centre is a world-class, one-of-a-kind talent who has been able to slot back seamlessly into international rugby when required in seasons past. He also knows that world-class, one-of-a-kind talent is what is required to win World Cups, showpieces which only come around once every four years.

There are still two years until Tuilagi needs to be at the peak of his powers, therefore; for France 2023, the Holy Grail for which Jones yearns. Time is on Tuilagi's side, of course, but that would have meant nothing had he not signed a new contract in England. Jones might sleep a little easier tonight knowing that his blockbuster centre has not been enticed by the Japanese or French gold rushes. The Australian will have had a happy Monday.