By Ali Stokes
England head coach Eddie Jones must avoid the temptation of parachuting a rejuvenated Manu Tuilagi out of position during the impending Autumn Internationals, at risk of wasting the iconic centre's most valuable assets and an increased chance of chronic re-injury.
Since taking up the England role following the calamitous home Rugby World Cup performance of 2015, Jones has made no secret of his admiration of Tuilagi's skill-set. However, the Australian coach must avoid the temptation of shoehorning Tuilagi into the twelve jersey, where his propensity for game-breaking marvels will be hampered.
Ahead of the 2017/18 season, Jones talked up Tuilagi's destructive capabilities. The 58-year-old former Saracens coach was quoted in saying that “I know he can demolish the All Blacks" and "no one has ripped them apart – apart from Manu." The year before, Jones also expressed his desire to see the Samoan-born centre emulate the role former All Blacks inside centre Ma'a Nonu performed for New Zealand, on 103 occasions.
Laying aside the collective rise in blood pressures of Leicester Tigers' faithful followers, should Tuilagi be placed in a battering ram role for England at inside centre, the 110kg centre proved against Scarlets last weekend that his most threatening facets of play came from his positioning at outside centre.
By the admission of Tuilagi's Leicester and England teammate George Ford, the Premiership side had used their powerhouse centre to poor effect over the last twelve months, expecting Tuilagi to run through brick walls instead of turn on the power and pace when faced with defensive mismatches and weak shoulders, where he can do the most damage.
Between the airtight nature of modern international defences, tendency of backrowers with the stopping power of a freight train to loiter in midfield and high-contact role Jones is likely to employ Tuilagi, shifting the revered centre in one position could prove underwhelming.
One of the most significant flaws in Tuilagi's game over the last few seasons could also prove symbiotic with England's game plan at outside centre. Often, the centre has been criticised for shooting out of the defensive line, hunting big defensive hits. While this has cost the Tigers ground and even points on a few occasions, it could actually suit England's defence.
The most poignant example of this is the role filled by currently injured Bath centre during the 2018 Six Nations. The fleet-footed centre can often be seen shooting out in defence for England, either driving defenders onto the inside shoulder and into a staunch defence or forcing mistakes. Jones himself made a point of highlighting Joseph's rush defence when Scarlets' fly-half, Rhys Patchell, was set for his first start for Wales.
As part of his usual mid-week mind games ahead of last year's England-Wales fixture at Twickenham, Jones said: "Every time Patchell looks up, he is going to see JJ [Jonathan Joseph] in his vision - that is not a great sight."
There can be no doubt that England is in need of dominant game line carrier next month, especially with both Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, ruled out with injury and Wasps number eight banned for the entirety of the national period. However, Jones must resist shoehorning Tuilagi inside one position, a move that could cause far more disruption than first thoughts may suggest.