Tuilagi has not played since 18 February, when he was sent off and banned while playing for his club Sale, and before that he had been snubbed by England head coach Steve Borthwick for the Six Nations matches against Scotland and Italy, leading to commentary that the 31-year-old’s Test days might be numbered.
Ollie Lawrence took Tuilagi’s place but the Bath player is now out with a hamstring injury. Tuilagi kept training with England, he has a record of six wins from six appearances against Ireland, and looks now to be the answer again to Borthwick identifying a lack of physical power in last Saturday’s shocking home record defeat, which ended 53-10 to France.
England could reunite their 2019 World Cup final midfield of Ford, Owen Farrell and Tuilagi, which would mean the demotion again of Marcus Smith.
“Manu has been outstanding and deserves a shot this week,” England’s defence coach Kevin Sinfield said on Tuesday.
“He brings some physicality to us and we needed a bit more of that last weekend but we didn’t get it. I don’t think there are many teams around the world who have that quality of player as the next cab off the rank, of that calibre, and he will be welcomed back and hopefully he can go and do a great job for us.”
Ford has yet to play for England under Borthwick, while building his fitness in four appearances for Sale after a seven-month Achilles tendon injury, but Sinfield said: “He is fit and ready, fit to go.”
Borthwick has been ‘a tower of strength’
Borthwick has been having sleepless nights and the England head coach and his team have not even got to Dublin yet, where the Irish are expecting to roll the Cheltenham Festival, St Patrick’s Day on Friday and Saturday’s tilt at completing the Six Nations Grand Slam into one gigantic party.
Borthwick’s men will cross the Irish Sea on Thursday, with the daunting task of recovering from last weekend’s record thrashing by France, and looking destined to finish fourth in the Six Nations unless they can bring off an almighty upset over the world’s number-one ranked team.
To revert to Tuilagi, whose form this season has been far from persuasive, and certainly was not enough to get him into the England side at the outset of this Championship, was a selection broadly hinted at yesterday by Sinfield. England are in the grimly classic situation of debating whether to stick or twist against an Irish team holding all the aces.
Trimming his squad to 30 players on Tuesday, Borthwick released six players including Ben Youngs, and retained the scrum-halves Alex Mitchell and Jack van Poortvliet, enabling them to gain further experience at a formative stage with six months to go to the World Cup.
Ollie Chessum injuring his ankle in training will force a change in the second row, maybe for Jonny Hill to bring added weight, or promote the more mobile Dave Ribbans. If loading a heftier pack is the way to go, Nick Isiekwe could be on the blindside flank.
“We have had to make some adjustments because 50 points is big but he is as good as he has ever been,” Sinfield said when asked how Borthwick had reacted to the French hammering.
“You want your leaders to stand up in moments when it is tough and he has certainly stood up. I don’t think he has had much sleep but he has been a tower of strength for the whole group and he will continue to do that. This is a huge bump in the road but we don’t throw our toys out of the pram.
“At the minute it is horrible because it is raw and everybody is coming at us, which I understand and expect, but we will be better for it because it will pull us together.”
Sinfield said he “had 50 stuck on my chin plenty of times” during his eminent rugby league playing career, and the adversity brought the best out of him. “They all leave a mark,” he said. “The big thing is how you respond as a group and you bounce back and you fight back.” Sinfield also described Ireland as “pretty untouchable at the minute” and said “they have got a big party set up on Saturday”.
Ford’s implacable nature and long Test experience, as well as his familiarity with Borthwick from their Premiership title win together at Leicester Tigers last year, are appealing, and it may be Henry Slade slides out of the starting line-up as a result. Farrell and Smith are in the 30, too.
The big question mark hangs over the forwards who need a rapid improvement, individually and in twos and threes, if they want to avoid another comprehensive wipe-out at the breakdown.
Meanwhile the coaches are sticking to an overarching storyline of having been lobbed one of the most sizeable hospital passes in history by the Rugby Football Union since the regime change forced by the sacking of Eddie Jones in December.
“This was never going to be straightforward,” Sinfield said. “If it was already in a great place, Steve and I wouldn’t be here and other members of staff wouldn’t be here.”