Eddie Jones has cautioned against expecting too much from Manu Tuilagi after limiting England’s marauding centre to a bench role against South Africa.
Rugby league convert Ben Te’o is the preferred ball-carrying option in midfield, despite being confined to only 28 minutes of action since May because of thigh and calf injuries.
Instead, Tuilagi will be unleashed upon the Springboks at Twickenham tomorrow as an impact substitute in the hope of making his power tell when the match is at its most disjointed.
It will be the 27-year-old’s first cap since 2016 following a savage run of groin, knee and hamstring injuries, compelling England head coach Jones to caution patience.
“All I want him to do is be brilliant at the basics. I don’t think we should over-hype his entry back in the England side,” said Jones.
“It’s been a long time and he’s played a couple of good games for Leicester. He’s in pretty good physical nick, so let’s just take it that he’ll make a difference when he comes on.”
Tuilagi has been a regular starter for Leicester this season, his recent man-of-the-match performance against the Scarlets evidence of a player recapturing his form.
However, at times during his long battle with a career-threatening groin problem, he feared his return might never come.
“Of course I had doubts about getting back to this stage. We’re all human beings, we have our feelings,” said Tuilagi. “You can be the strongest person, but you always have your doubts. If you really love what you do it gets you up.
“I have a little family now, as well, with our little girl, so life is completely different in a very positive way.
“I’m feeling better and better every time I get another 80 minutes for Leicester, which is natural. The only way you can get match fitness is by playing week in, week out.”
Owen Farrell has been acclaimed as England’s “spiritual leader” after winning the fly-half selection race for tomorrow’s clash.
The British and Irish Lion will make only his third start in the position since the launch of the Jones era in 2016, moving from inside centre to form a midfield trio alongside Ben Te’o and Henry Slade for the the first of four Quilter Internationals being staged this month.
It means George Ford continues with the bench role he filled against the Springboks in Cape Town in June, as Jones looks beyond the twin playmaker policy that has previously served him well.
Already, England’s co-captain, tactical general and goalkicker, Jones has now entrusted the Saracen with the creative duties as the countdown to next year’s World Cup enters a key phase.
“I wanted to see the difference it makes playing Owen at 10 with bigger centres. Tactically, we’ll be a little bit different,” said Jones.
“Owen’s a good decision-maker and he has a very good tactical kicking game. He’s a bit of a spiritual leader in our side, so being close to the action will help in that regard.”
In reference to Farrell’s father, the Ireland assistant coach Andy, Jones said: “He’s from good stock and handles responsibility well. He’s an aggressive competitor. We need that against South Africa, definitely.”
The selection of Te’o at inside centre is a gamble, given the Worcester centre lack of game time
has been limited to a mere 28 minutes of rugby this season
due to thigh surgery and a calf problem, but Jones has been persuaded by his impact during the squad’s training camp in Portugal.
“Ben’s ready to start. He’s a very good player — a Lions player — so we know what he’s capable of doing.
“More experienced players and particularly players who have played a lot of high-level games — as he has, given his rugby league background — tend to know how to prepare to get back into games. They know what their body needs. Rather than coaches telling them what they need, they tell the coaches what they need. Ben is in that category.”
Chris Ashton, who has become available after leaving Toulon for Sale, has failed to make the matchday 23 altogether, with Jonny May and Jack Nowell preferred on the wings.
“Chris was very close. He’s very disappointed, absolutely gutted, but I have to say I love his attitude. He has taken it well and his opportunity won’t be far away,” said Jones.
The void left by the unavailability of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes at number eight is filled by Mark Wilson, who will be winning his fifth cap as part of an alarmingly inexperienced pack.
Dylan Hartley, Farrell’s co-captain, has more caps than the rest of the forwards put together, having made 93 international appearances, as Jones contends with an injury crisis.
“I wouldn’t say this has been the most difficult team election, but it’s the deepest we’ve had to dig,” said Jones.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a full squad any more. The only time we will have any chance of getting our best team together is when we get together on July 8 for the World Cup.
“Otherwise, we are just going to be picking players out from here, there and everywhere to try to get through the next period of time. That’s the reality of rugby, particularly up here.”
E Daly (Wasps); J Nowell (Exeter Chiefs), H Slade (Exeter Chiefs), B Te’o (Worcester Warriors), J May (Leicester Tigers); O Farrell (Saracens, co-capt), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers); A Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs), D Hartley (Northampton Saints, co-capt), K Sinckler (Harlequins), M Itoje (Saracens), G Kruis (Saracens), B Shields (Wasps), T Curry (Sale Sharks), M Wilson (Newcastle Falcons).
D Willemse; S Nkosi, J Kriel, D de Allende, A Dyantyi; H Pollard, I van Zyl; S Kitshoff, M Marx, F Malherbe, E Etzebeth, PS du Toit, S Kolisi (capt), D Vermeulen, W Whitelely.