Wilkinson hails Tuilagi as 'the future'
August 4, 2011
Manu Tuilagi is set to make his England debut against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday © Getty Images
England stalwart Jonny Wilkinson has offered a ringing endorsement of Manu Tuilagi's ascent to the international stage - hailing him as the future of English rugby.
The 20-year-old Tuilagi is set to cap an outstanding first season in the senior ranks with his first Test cap having been named at outside centre for England's Rugby World Cup warm-up clash against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday. And having witnessed the Samoan-born Tuilagi's impressive skillset at first hand during England's training camp, Wilkinson has been left in no doubt as to his potential.
"Manu has that aura about him, that Jason Robinson uniqueness about his ability to impact on a game," said Wilkinson, who returns to the England starting line-up at fly-half. "When someone has that ability as an individual to change a game you know he has to be special. I saw it a bit in Toulon with Sonny-Bill Williams.
"He has the power, the speed and he reads the game incredibly well. His focus is very sharp, he doesn't drop off. You'd think he's all about running over people but he has got the footwork and the passing skills and he can kick a ball pretty well. You have to sit back and acknowledge that you are seeing the future of the game right here, with this breed of youngster coming through."
Wilkinson rarely offers such a bold statement which suggests Tuilagi, who is set to follow his four older brothers - Freddie, Henry, Alesana and Anitelea - onto the international stage, has made a significant impression on his more experienced team-mate.
England manager Martin Johnson has now selected 12 different centres for his 31 Tests in charge - but none of them have carried that same high-octane potential as Tuilagi. "Manu is an explosive player. He likes to come out of the line and hit people and he can carry the ball very powerfully," said Johnson. "He is not just a power runner. He has good skills and good rugby awareness. He is an exciting 20-year-old. He has all the talents to develop into a top player."
Tuilagi's story is a remarkable one. This time last year he was fighting deportation from the country he will represent at Twickenham on Saturday. It emerged in June 2010 that Tuilagi - by this stage an England age-group international - had arrived as a 13-year-old schoolboy on a six-month holiday visa.
After weeks of lobbying from Leicester, the Rugby Football Union and three MPs, the Home Office eventually gave Tuilagi special dispensation to stay. And that decision was the launchpad for an extraordinary 12 months.
Tuilagi was named Aviva Premiership young Player of the Year for his debut-season exploits with Leicester, although the season ended on a sour note when he was banned for punching Chris Ashton. Suspension ruled Tuilagi out of the final - but Johnson has no qualms about thrusting him into a Test match environment.
"Can he handle the pressure of Test match rugby? I think he'll be fine. That is the next step for him," said Johnson. "Dealing with the intensity of Test matches is big, guys have to be exposed to that spotlight but he has handled everything well. He hasn't looked overawed at any point."
Despite living with his elder brother Alesana, who is currently with the Samoan World Cup squad, Tuilagi had no qualms about choosing to play his international rugby with England.
"No it wasn't a difficult decision. I grew up here and all my rugby was here. I played England Under-16s, 18s and 20s and if you play for those age groups then obviously you want to get to the top," said Tuilagi. "I consider myself fully English as a rugby player - but that Samoan side to just come out the line and smash people, you never lose it. It's good fun."
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