By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
England’s midfield problems have been well documented. While the likes of Chris Ashton and Ben Foden shone during the November Internationals, the same could not be said of the Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape centre partnership.
The fact that Martin Johnson even experimented with Matt Banahan in the No 13 shirt proves that the England management is not convinced by the potency of their midfield – but there is a 19-year-old at Leicester who could prove the answer to those problems.
Manu Tuilagi is the youngest of the Samoan family dynasty and has impressed this season with his strong, powerful running, subtle passing skills and, like his brothers, a ferocious defence (just watch this video of his hit on Harlequins’ Tom Williams).
The Tigers have been grateful to have his services, too, after the Home Office threatened to deport him in the summer. Leicester, the RFU and three MPs came to his aid and with a work permit secured, Tuilagi has been quick to repay the Tigers for their assistance, scoring five tries already this season.
While he was born in Samoa, he was brought up in the UK and has played for England through the age groups. Now he’s being tipped for a place in Johnson’s Six Nations squad and his Leicester team-mate Dan Hipkiss for one believes he deserves an opportunity to prove himself at Test level.
“Because not many people have seen him play, he is still a bit of an unknown quantity in the Aviva Premiership,” says Hipkiss. “But he wont be for long. He has a lot of attributes that the England team could really do with and his physical presence is hugely valuable as the game becomes more fluid.”
While his brothers Freddie, Henry, Alesana and Anitele’a have all represented Samoa at international level, Manu has made it clear that he wants to wear the red rose having been part of the England U16, U18 and U20 squads. But he’s not getting carried away about talk of an impending Test debut.
“We’ll see what happens about the Six Nations,” says Tuilagi. “What I will say is that England helped me with my work permit, as did Leicester, and I’ve been here for pretty much all my rugby-playing life so that helped me decide that I’d like to play for England, not Samoa.”
Someone who knows him better than anyone, his older brother and Leicester team-mate Alesana, is tipping him to beat the rest of the family’s achievements, saying: “My baby brother has more talent and is a better player than the other five Tuilagi boys. If he were called up for England, he’d be ready.”