Tuilagi’s ‘sensational’ return to action raises Sale hopes of new deal for centre

Manu Tuilagi - Tuilagi’s ‘sensational’ return to action raises Sale hopes of new deal for centre
Manu Tuilagi played his first match for Sale since the World Cup - Shutterstock/Anna Gowthorpe

Sale Sharks 28 Stade Francais 5

Manu Tuilagi was still smiling and signing autographs long after the end of a comeback appearance which encouraged hopes of a new contract at Sale.

The 32-year-old England centre was fit to play in this Investec Champions Cup opener having recovered from a broken hand sustained during the Rugby World Cup.

He was a typically uncompromising presence in midfield, dishing out and being on the receiving end of some shuddering collisions, and coming close to scoring during an excellent 80-minute performance.

Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson would like to keep one of the best players of his generation but who has also been sidelined by injuries for lengthy periods of his 12-year England career.

“Manu was sensational today and just seemed to get more physical the more hits that he took,” Sanderson said after Tuilagi’s first club appearance of the season.

“He just carried consistently hard all day, so Manu is back, which I think all of us collectively are very happy about.

“He looked so fit and energetic and didn’t want to come off. That’s a really good sign for Manu and the club because he’s probably got another couple of years left in him. Why not? He’s playing his best stuff and is as robust as he’s ever been.”

Salary cap restrictions will play a major part in whether Tuilagi stays beyond this season. Yet Sanderson wants to keep him, saying: “If he plays like that then yes.

“It’s not entirely down to me – we have a selection syndicate and someone who holds the purse strings, plus a cap to fit him into.

“We’ve got a recruitment meeting on Tuesday and I’d imagine Manu would like to get his life sorted; we would want to get our planning done before the February break.

“Negotiations take weeks but they would start before then and we would get them all signed off before the Six Nations.”

Sale failed to get out of their pool last season after back-to-back quarter-finals in their two previous campaigns, but this was a hugely encouraging start.

An untidy opening quarter saw a raft of replacements for both sides with players forced off through injury and Head Injury Assessments.

Yet the hosts, in cold but crisp conditions in Salford, gradually warmed to their task. George Ford’s clever kick found full-back Joe Carpenter in the left-hand corner and his deft offload invited Tuilagi to crash over the line from close range. It required some obstinate defending to keep him at bay, but hinted at the possibilities on offer for Sanderson’s side.

George Ford of Sale Sharks during the Investec Champions Cup match between Sale Sharks and Stade Francais Paris at AJ Bell Stadium on December 10, 2023 in Salford, England
George Ford's assured display at fly-half set the tone for Sale - Sale Sharks/Nathan Stirk

Soon after, Carpenter dived on a clever grubber kick by scrum-half Gus Warr in the left corner, but the score was disallowed by the TMO with the full-back having knocked on.

Then came a fine burst from Tuilagi which took him close once more before Stade fashioned a stunning move which saw the ball go through several pairs of hands and culminated in captain Jeremy Ward touching down in the left corner.

But Ford converted his second penalty from long range to make it 6-5 at the break and the second half belonged to Sale.

Tom O’Flaherty scored their first try in the 53rd minute, diving in at the left corner after a neat move involving replacement scrum-half Raffi Quirke.

Lock Jonny Hill was then sent in at the same spot before flanker Sam Dugdale, who had an earlier try ruled out, went over from close range for Sale’s third.

Next up for Sale is a daunting trip to Leinster on Saturday but Sanderson added: “We’re not going there to dip our toe in, sit back and let them dictate.”