The Samoan-born 19-year-old was in danger of being sent back to the Pacific island last summer, winning an appeal against deportation and being granted indefinite leave to remain in the country.
Since then his progress has been rapid, stepping up out of the Tigers academy to feature for the first team and start their last five games in the Heineken Cup, Aviva Premiership and LV=Cup, following in the footsteps of five brothers to have featured for Leicester.
A former England Under 18 international, he was named in the national Under 20 squad in July, then promoted to the Saxons group as an injury replacement for Mathew Tait and will line-up alongside established star turns like Ugo Monye and James Simpson-Daniel as well as Tigers teammate Billy Twelvetrees against Italy A at Sixways on Saturday (3.15pm).
On the way, he’s even been mentioned as a contender for a place in this year’s World Cup squad after displaying a frightening combination of power, pace and subtle handling on his arrival in the Tigers team.
“Back in the summer I was just looking to get a start in the Leicester first team and that’s quite hard because you’ve got guys like Dan Hipkiss, my brother [Alesana] on the wing, Anthony Allen at 12, and so on all around you.
“But because of some injuries I’ve got an opportunity to come on, then get some starts and I’ve started the last five games now. It’s a big step up from the Leicester academy and the standard is very high in the Aviva Premiership and in the European Cup. We’ve played the likes of the Scarlets and Exeter away from home recently and they’re all tough games.
“Being called up to the England Saxons was a surprise too. It was a real bonus to get a call from [head coach] Stuart Lancaster in the first place and now I’m starting so I’m just trying to keep my cool. For me it’s a massive step from the academy to the first team and then from Leicester to the Saxons.”
Tuilagi’s brothers have all played internationally for Samoa but he qualifies for England by residency after coming to the country six years ago and working his way through the ranks at Welford Road. Once last summer’s visa problems were resolved his path was clear.
“I was born in Samoa and came over at the age of 13, so all my rugby pretty much has been learned in England and Leicester have been great for me every step of the way,” he said. “You don’t get anything free and easy there.
“It [the visa appeal] went on for a long time but I didn’t let it affect my rugby. I thought, well, if I’m gone, I’m gone. I just tried to keep playing and not thinking about it. It all worked out well in the end, thank God.
“At the moment I’m just focused on playing well at club level and for the Saxons and the next game on Saturday, but the World Cup? I don’t know.
“Everyone who plays rugby wants to play in a World Cup and every English player wants to play for England. Hopefully the dream will continue. Playing at Twickenham for England is in the back of my mind and I’d love to be able to do it.”Like Rugby World? Subscribe to the magazine for the latest comprehensive content.