England vs New Zealand: New-look Manu Tuilagi is a lean, mean wrecking machine

England vs New Zealand: New-look Manu Tuilagi is a lean, mean wrecking machine

Manu Tuilagi version 3.0 has been in Beta testing so far this autumn. But only Alphas defeat the All Blacks.

The updates and the patches are complete, and tomorrow England will find out whether a stripped-down Tuilagi still has the power to punish New Zealand.

A leaner Tuilagi is all but banned from lifting weights in a bid to end a susceptibility to soft-tissue injury. Team-mate Henry Slade and head coach Eddie Jones believe the all-new Tuilagi is meaner than ever.

The 31-year-old’s third iteration receives final release at Twickenham tomorrow, whereupon all England will hope he can recapture his physical dominance and complete a hat-trick of New Zealand humblings.

Samoa-born powerhouse Tuilagi had New Zealand running scared in 2012, only to suffer years of groin injuries. A split pubic bone nearly forced Tuilagi into retirement, but Leicester painstakingly put the hard-running centre’s body back together.

Tuilagi somehow resummoned full strength and power to terrorise New Zealand again, in the 2019 World Cup semi-final in Japan.

Hamstring troubles and knee surgery have stunted his progress ever since, though, leaving Sale and England in close consultation to reshape Tuilagi one more time.

Tuilagi got inside New Zealand heads in both the 38-21 win at Twickenham in 2012 and the 19-7 World Cup triumph in 2019.

Fellow centre Slade believes Tuilagi remains one of England’s most powerful players, even despite that no-weights regimen. Jones reckons Tuilagi’s best is yet to come.

England probably need another marauder’s masterclass from him tomorrow to subdue the All Blacks. Owen Farrell and Tuilagi are the only two England players to have started against New Zealand in 2012, 2019 and now at Twickenham tomorrow.

The old hands are back in tandem for the showdown, where Farrell will win his 100th cap. That Tuilagi will take just his 49th bow in comparison speaks volumes about his injuries.

Tuilagi just wants a run of Tests, while Farrell craves the perfect international performance.

England skipper Farrell this week explained every elite sport star’s quest to hit “the zone”, that elusive sweet spot where all thought gives way to fluent, decisive action. Fleeting trips to that zone keep Farrell transfixed on his England career, with the 31-year-old still hoping that he is yet to hit his peak.

Three key clashes in England vs New Zealand

Freddie Steward v Beauden Barrett

England’s high-ball master against New Zealand’s auxiliary playmaker. A clash of approaches but still two of the very best going at it. Steward has the chance to cement his reputation among the world’s best aerial threats at 15. Barrett will look to cut the line with pace and creativity. A genuine blockbuster match-up that could be among the highlights of this Autumn Nations Series.

Marcus Smith v Richie Mo’unga

Eddie Jones told Smith this week he will end up at Mo’unga’s level if he keeps progressing. Harlequins tyro Smith might need time to hit Mo’unga’s mastery of game understanding and control, but the 23-year-old could rack up a lot more caps at this rate. Smith will make his 16th Test appearance this weekend, while Mo’unga will earn his 44th cap, aged 28. These two 10s are still learning, but need no teaching on how to attack.

Sam Simmonds v Scott Barrett

England have opted for pace around the park and extra breakdown acumen at blindside, while the All Blacks have gone for raw power and lineout strength. England admit they could lose an edge at the lineout by not selecting a specialist in their back row but firmly believe that 28-year-old Simmonds will add vital dynamism. New Zealand, meanwhile, are backing Barrett’s physicality and set-piece work to make the difference.

A 17-year-old Ellis Genge watched England’s 2012 All Blacks demolition on TV in a caravan in Torquay.

The England vice-captain will square up to New Zealand at senior level for the first time tomorrow.

Genge loved seeing Tuilagi “run amok” in skittling the All Blacks in 2012, and was boosted by Farrell’s confidence for the future. “That’s class if he thinks he has still got his best years ahead of him,” said Genge.

“Because he’s obviously put in some of the best performances I’ve seen in an international shirt in the past. With Faz, the things that he measures and what he prides himself on are the things that you guys might not see.

“The effort off the ball, he’s always first to sprint up on a kick chase, he’s first off the line. He doesn’t let things come to him; he goes towards them.”

England plan to “get after” New Zealand tomorrow, in boss Jones’s tub-thumping rhetoric. Jones sliced Kiwi fruit with a Samurai blade in a team talk to tee up England’s rapier win over the All Blacks in Japan in 2019.

Manu Tuilagi crashes over vs the All Blacks in 2019 (AP)
Manu Tuilagi crashes over vs the All Blacks in 2019 (AP)

England’s pack selection to take on New Zealand could hand the hosts a double-edged sword.

Sam Simmonds starts at six to add dynamism and pace to England’s back-row, with Maro Itoje stepping back to lock. England have surrendered a lineout jumper in the process, with David Ribbans dropping to the bench.

Brodie Retallick will win his 100th cap for the All Blacks, while his long-term lock partner Sam Whitelock will make his 143rd appearance.

Jones has thrown all his support behind Itoje to lead the lineout against the All Blacks’ aerial masters, especially with one fewer out-and-out jumping options for the home side. The odd ruse or two could be required at the set-piece then, with England cooking up some fresh lineout plans.

England need a sixth win in 11 games this calendar year, while New Zealand are trying to edge still further away from their six defeats in eight matches.

The All Blacks might have won their last six on the bounce, but Farrell and Tuilagi can still leave them in a spin.