ENGLAND coach Stuart Lancaster is ready to unleash Manu Tuilagi against Ireland on Sunday, but admits the Leicester wrecking ball’s return to fitness has given him a selection dilemma.
Lancaster hinted that Tuilagi will be restored to the midfield after recovering from an ankle injury on account of his “unique set of skills and attributes”, resulting in the demotion of either Billy Twelvetrees or Brad Barritt.
It will be a difficult call to make, with Twelvetrees impressing on his Test debut when England began their RBS Six Nations title quest with Saturday’s 38-18 victory over Scotland, while Barritt offers defensive steel.
A final decision will be made by tomorrow after Tuilagi has featured in training, but Lancaster appears willing to hand his most destructive player an immediate recall even though he will have been out for a month.
“I watched Manu through the course of last week, I could see he was back to running and changing direction,” Lancaster said yesterday. “The tipping point will be how he trains over the next couple of days. He has missed a few games, but I’m confident we’ll be able to use him after a full week’s training.
“It would have been different if he had come back in and we were still undecided on Thursday. There are selection decisions across the field and this is one of them. Billy played well against Scotland and Brad’s contribution as always was positive. But Manu brings a unique set of skills and attributes to the game and the team, as we saw in his performance against the All Blacks. Genuinely, I’ll wait and see how he trains tomorrow and on Wednesday before I make any decisions.”
The second probable change for an encounter that is shaping up to be an early title decider following France’s shock defeat by Italy will come in the back row, with Ben Morgan a doubt because of his ankle problem.
England ended the Calcutta Cup match with Tom Wood playing No 8 and substitute James Haskell operating at blindside flanker. Billy Vunipola’s ankle injury – the Wasps’ No 8 was undergoing a fitness test at Twickenham yesterday – complicates matters, with Saracens’ Will Fraser called up as cover. “We have done quite a bit of work with Tom (at No 8) over the autumn as well as the start of the Six Nations,” Lancaster said. “James Haskell brings a different set of qualities to Ben Morgan. In Saturday’s cameo performance he turned a couple of balls over and made ten tackles. A lot of No 8 work is managing the ball at the base. That is something we need to work with Tom on.”
England’s last trip to Dublin two years ago ended in disaster with the final assignment of their Grand Slam disintegrating into a 24-8 rout, although they still won the Six Nations. While the Irish opened this year’s championship with a 30-22 win against Wales, Lancaster says last summer’s tour to South Africa has prepared England well.
“This is a completely different team going to Dublin from 2011 with a completely different mentality,” he said. “That said, playing the Irish in Dublin is a unique challenge. We’ve got to be able to deal with the emotion of the occasion and still think clearly, making good, accurate decisions. That will be the true test of our maturity. But in all three of the Tests in South Africa the players learned some lessons about what it takes to get there – we all did.”