Tuilagi handed first Test start
August 4, 2011
Manu Tuilagi will partner Riki Flutey in the England midfield against Wales this weekend © Getty Images
Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi is set to make his first Test start against Wales at Twickenham this Saturday.
The headline-grabbing 20-year-old has been given a chance to press his World Cup selection claims in the first of England's three warm-up internationals. Saracens lock Mouritz Botha and Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples are both primed to make their Test debuts off the bench.
"I'm really proud to be winning my first cap," said Tuilagi, who was voted Aviva Premiership young player of the year last season. There is a lot of competition for places and I just want to take this chance and do the best I can for the team. The boys have worked hard during the camp but now we have to perform against Wales."
Tuilagi, whose four elder brothers have played Test rugby for Samoa, will start in a new-look midfield partnership alongside Riki Flutey. England's starting XV features a number of comebacks.
Flutey, the Wasps centre, and London Irish fullback Delon Armitage both get an England start for the first time since the 2010 Six Nations while Saracens prop Matt Stevens earned his last England cap in November 2008, shortly after which he tested positive for cocaine and was banned for two years.
Lewis Moody missed the Six Nations title campaign with knee ligament damage but he returns to captain the team in a back row that features Tom Croft at blindside flanker and James Haskell at No.8. Matt Banahan and Mark Cueto start on the wings while Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Care fill the half-back slots in a strong but experimental England line-up.
England manager Martin Johnson hailed Stevens' all-round game at a televised press conference. "[Matt] is another one who has been impressive all the way through," he said. "He has been training well and he has been in great shape.
"Matt is a very smart player, obviously he can do the work in the tight phases but he is a very smart rugby player as well. Having those (attributes) on the field in those positions is very important so it is a good opportunity for him."
Tuilagi has a chance to impress Johnson too, and the England boss said: "He played some very good rugby last year in a tough Premiership and in Europe, so we are looking forward to seeing him play."
Talking generally about the squad to face Wales, Johnson added: "They have got an opportunity. We wouldn't be putting people out there if they didn't have a chance of getting in that 30 [for the World Cup].
"Wales' team is very strong, it's a pre-season game in one sense but when we get there on Saturday and it's a full house, it's a Test match, and that's what we want - we want the games to be as intense and as hard as we can make them, because that's what the World Cup is going to be when we get there."
Johnson welcomed Moody's return to the side but refused to confirm him as his World Cup skipper. "We'll see. We're going to go into this game and we'll see where we are," he said. "[Lewis] is outstanding as a leader, he missed the Six Nations and he was hugely frustrated with that. If you look at our squad there is some depth there. There is a deep squad, you could put out another 15 equally as strong as that one. There are definitely starting places and final places on the plane to be grabbed.
On Botha's inclusion on the replacements' bench, Johnson said: "We've got five locks in at the moment. There are lots of things to be decided but we know what the options are. Mo has been a good all-round player. He has come in and is rubbing shoulders with guys who have played a few Test matches and not looked out of place at any time, so he deserves that shot as well."
Wilkinson's return to the starting line-up gives him a chance to seal a place in the squad. "He's been on the bench, he hasn't really been away," Johnson said. "Toby [Flood] has started for the last season or so but we said at the start of the year that we've got good options there. [Jonny] has trained as he always does, he has been absolutely outstanding and he's still got a lot in him."
England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Banahan (Bath Rugby), M Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers), R Flutey (London Wasps), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton Saints), M Stevens (Saracens), S Shaw (Unattached), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Croft (Leicester Tigers), L Moody (Bath Rugby, capt), J Haskell (Ricoh Black Rams).
Replacements: L Mears (Bath Rugby), D Wilson (Bath Rugby), M Botha (Saracens), T Wood (Northampton Saints), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), C Hodgson (Saracens), C Sharples (Gloucester Rugby).
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