His teammates call him “Chief” but for Manu Tuilagi there are only a few weeks left in which to rule the world. He sounds pretty sure this will be his final World Cup, even though he is just 28. “I’ll be too old, mate,” he murmured, asked about the possibility of him being involved in 2023. “I feel it.”
Opponents, however, should not breathe too deep a sigh of relief. According to John Mitchell, England’s assistant coach, Tuilagi has the air of someone with “a bit of unfinished business” in a white jersey. “He has a real presence and looks like he has real strength and belief both in the team and himself,” Mitchell said after England had worked up a training-ground sweat in front of 600 locals and children on a hot, humid morning.
The pool game against Argentina on Saturday will also revive memories of the days when Tuilagi was young, carefree and not yet spending half his life on a treatment table. His World Cup debut was against the Pumas in Dunedin in 2011, after which he received a £5,000 fine for wearing an illegal gumshield. Few imagined then that he would still be waiting to taste victory in a World Cup knockout fixture eight years later.
Hence why Tuilagi, whose father is a chief of the family’s Samoan village, is assuming nothing in Japan. The big man cuts a more mature figure these days, with his ferry-jumping days now dipped in sepia, and knows he can never resuscitate his 20-year-old self. “I could never be the old me again. It’s different now. The old me used to just go out and play. Now I need to warm up for 30 minutes before I even start.”
His lengthy injury absences have also taught him to relish whatever rugby experiences he has left. “I know that it is not going to last for ever, that it is not going to last very long so I have got to enjoy the moment while it is here.” For that simple reason he says he enjoys playing for England “more now than before” and his coaches are seeing as much on the training field.
Mitchell also reckons fatherhood has mellowed the Leicester centre and that he is now ready to make up for lost time. “I think he is in a particularly good space because he is being managed well. He is also just that much older. He has been through a few rugby movies in his time and knows this stage doesn’t always come around. He’s a difficult tackle for anyone and he can also spook players through his defensive pressure. If he gets you man and ball it’s not that comfortable for the attack.”
Tuilagi, however, is keen to play down the “unfinished business” tag, preferring to discuss the collective midfield threat he believes England can pose. There is no official confirmation as yet but it seems all but certain George Ford, Owen Farrell and Tuilagi will line up alongside each other against the Pumas. For the latter, it would be a perfect combination. “I love it. We’ve been together for a long time so we all know how each other plays – our strengths and our weaknesses. I’ve played a few games now alongside Fordy and Farrell and their knowledge of the game is unbelievable. I try and stay as close to them as possible. The way they see the game is different level.”
Ford, unsurprisingly, also argues that having two 10s in midfield is a plus that England should not abandon now. “To have two like‑minded players on the field who think like 10s – where the space is, doing the right thing at the right time, the kicking and passing options – is a huge strength. I’ve obviously played with Owen through the age groups and a fair bit at senior level so the understanding is good between us.”
• Our latest minute-by-minute live reports
• Sign up to The Breakdown, our free rugby union email newsletter
Pool A: Ireland, Japan, Russia, Samoa, Scotland
Pool B: Canada, Italy, Namibia, New Zealand, South Africa
Pool C: Argentina, England, France, Tonga, USA
Pool D: Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay, Wales
England’s starting XV could also yet contain the fit-again Mako Vunipola if the management decide he is best deployed from the outset opposite his Saracens clubmate Juan Figallo rather than the bench. The Pumas’ strong set-piece may also conceivably bring Courtney Lawes or Mark Wilson into the equation at blindside, although Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola are certain back-row starters.
Mitchell, for one, reckons a horses-for-courses selection is the way to go. “Ultimately it comes down to creating the right team mix for this game as opposed to just selecting the best individuals or the best team. That is very much the way we go about it.”