Should centre Manu Tuilagi swap Leicester for Paris, England may opt for a change in style in the No 12 shirt. Ali Stokes looks at the different options
Who’s in line to be England’s No 12 if Manu Tuilagi joins Racing?
Just three games into his long-awaited return to the England team, powerhouse centre Manu Tuilagi is weighing up a move to French giants Racing 92 after a decade with Leicester Tigers.
Between the summer of 2013 and 2018, the 27-year-old suffered an almost unprecedented number of back-to-back, persistent injuries and he acquired a meagre five caps.
No centre in world rugby can stand toe-to-toe with Tuilagi when it comes to causing havoc for the best laid defensive plans and drawing in defenders to open up gaping holes for team-mates to scythe through.
The term ‘world class’ is banded around too willingly in the professional game, but this is a man who well and truly fits the bill.
Eddie Jones has been waiting three years to promote the wrecking ball of a centre to England’s starting midfield, where he has contributed to the two Six Nations victories over the Irish and the French.
Many, myself included, held huge reservations regarding Tuilagi’s move to the No 12 jersey from his usual position at outside-centre. However, he has taken to the role like a duck to water, with no sign of his tendencies to shoot out of the defensive line.
As a stoic defensive presence on Owen Farrell’s shoulder and a go-to source of front-foot ball, England’s back-line has been transformed with Tuilagi’s 6ft 1in, 114kg presence.
Herein lies the problem. Should the widely-reported Paris move come to fruition – he’s described it as the toughest decision of his career – Tuilagi would become unavailable for England following the end of the World Cup later this year, so who comes into the white No 12 jersey?
An obvious first answer is that Worcester Warriors and British & Irish Lions centre Ben Te’o will resume his role. But the rugby league convert will be 33 this time next year and has himself suffered from consecutive injuries in recent times. Furthermore, Te’o’s abrasive style of play does not pertain to longevity.
With no England-qualified player coming close to the type of destructive play as Tuilagi or Te’o, the national side will need to search for a different dimension at inside-centre. Jones and his eventual successor will have two options: return to the second playmaker at 12 or opt for a classic, well-rounded individual.
An easy answer is to revert to type and re-establish the tried and tested George Ford-Farrell axis, with the option of retaining a third playmaker at 13 in the shape of Henry Slade or switching to a pacey option, with Jonathan Joseph, Joe Marchant and perhaps even current full-back Elliot Daly standing as prime candidates.
Should the national set-up decide to stick with the second playmaker option, but want to retain Farrell at fly-half, Sale Sharks’ 19-year-old Cameron Redpath and Northampton Saints’ 20-year-old James Grayson stand as exciting young prospects to rise through the ranks.
A name not to be missed is Ryan Mills, who has been the form English inside-centre in the Premiership for a number of years, flaunting his physicality, ability at the breakdown and general excellence for Worcester.
The 26-year-old stands as the most well-rounded option and the ideal halfway house between a Farrell or Tuilagi/Te’o in midfield. His leadership traits would also be a desirable prospect.
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When it comes to pace and power, the most prominent Premiership performers looking ready to take the step up are Newcastle Falcon Johnny Williams, Gloucesterman Mark Atkinson and Exeter Chief Ollie Devoto.
With heights varying between 6ft 2in and 6ft 6in and weights from 103kg to 107kg, each of the trio offer size enough to serve as a physical presence without lacking the dynamism of a Test-quality inside-centre.
Finally, Worcester and current England U20 man Ollie Lawrence is yet another option that may come to the fore over the next few years.
Short and stocky with wonderful power and pace, Lawrence may well be the closest replacement for Tuilagi when it comes to relative explosivity. However, the 19-year-old has some way to go yet and would require a stellar 12 months to play in the 2020 Six Nations.
Sam Hill (Exeter), Max Wright (Bath), Nick Tompkins (Saracens) and Luke James (Sale Sharks) stand as outside bets.
Should Tuilagi put pen to paper and re-commit to Leicester Tigers, this debate will begin to fade into the background. But the England colossus’s injury record does not make for pleasant reading and a contingency plan to bring forward the next promising youngster would be prudent.
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