Manu Tuilagi – Great Player or Great Enigma?

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To answer that question quickly one way or the other is not easy (thank goodness or this would be a poor read). Manu Tuilagi is a player of such balletic power and impact, he can turn a game on his own – a feat reserved for the truly gifted (Dan Carter, David Campese, Phil Bennett et al).  Yet he can be incredibly frustrating and occasionally ill-disciplined, sometimes going missing when his team are relying on him the most.

Some people would argue that is the thing that defines a great player – performance when it matters. The truly great players don’t shirk those moments, they reach out and grab them by the scruff of the neck (figuratively in some cases) and shake them until they submit and the game is won.  During England’s golden era of the early noughties when games were not going their way, the ever-present figure front and centre was Martin Johnson.  You might argue this was because he was captain or because of his position within the often dominant forward pack but in reality, it was because he was the one standing forth and offering himself as an example of how the team needed to play to get back into the game.

Manu Tuilagi – Great Player or Great Enigma?

The Tuilagi trait has been to have a couple of games where he steals the show and then a few quiet performances making you wonder. True, he has suffered from injury problems (the latest of which seen just as this comes to print) and ironically, it’s during these periods of inactivity when he is not turning out for either the Tigers or England, that his reputation seems to grow and everyone is talking about how everything will be alright ‘once Manu’s back’.

Tuilagi reminds me of that other great enigma of the last decade – Gavin Henson.  Henson doesn’t possess Tuilagi’s sheer physical presence, yet he has always been a powerful player – his welcome to international rugby for Mat Tait is indelibly ingrained on every rugby enthusiasts memory.  Equally, although both have relatively light feet and pace, Henson just shades it in the movement department seeming to glide over the turf like he is moving on a cushion of air an inch off the ground.

Like Tuilagi, Henson, historically, would be the star of some games and go missing in others and to those who have played the game at any level it was sickening to watch, when on form, how easy he could make the game look at times. Indeed, when Tuilagi is in true ‘wrecking ball’ mode, he moves past or through people like they aren’t there, yet for my mind, those moments just aren’t numerous enough.

The Henson/Tuilagi debate is interesting but for Manu the one player I can’t help comparing him to from the last 10-15 years is perhaps the yardstick for all powerful yet skilful inside centres – Ma’a Nonu.

To watch Nonu at his best (which has been most of the time during his career) you would be watching the perfect balance of power, pace, grace and, perhaps most importantly, great hands. It’s easy to lose count on how many times he’s slipped a pass out the back of his hand with three opposing players enveloping him.

The thing that is always striking about Nonu is his controlled aggression. He plays the game as hard as anyone and is committed to every tackle and ruck, and although there were some indiscretions during his early career, he quickly learnt that he was a far more potent weapon on the field rather than off it.

Again, in the pure size battle, Tuilagi has it covered (1.85 m and 110 kg vs 1.82 m and 107 kg) but their position is about so much more than that and he would do well to study video of Nonu’s movement without the ball as well as his determination to offload. It is the threat that players such as these pose to opposition defences that creates the overlap once two players commit themselves to the tackle and if the ball can be passed at this crucial moment, space for players outside is usually guaranteed.

So to return to the article’s main question, my mind is not yet made up. The positive for Tuilagi is that he is still in the prime of his career.  Having returned recently from a long injury lay -off of 15 months, he has been saying he is “playing with a smile on his face” and maybe we see the first signs of a change in focus in the back line from himself to the likes of Peter Betham and Telusa Veainu.

“It’s nice to be able to give Peter and Telusa the ball and watch them play.”

I guess the question is; was he expected to have achieved more at this stage based on his early impact? Possibly, what is clear is that he has the opportunity to improve even further and grow his game yet more.  I wonder whether a move to a different club might shake things up a little and give him a fresh challenge.  For the moment that’s not on his mind but for the future who knows?  Maybe that club could be in the South of France?  Now there’s a thought.

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