Jeremy Gucsott: A fit Manu Tuilagi can become England’s Ma’a Nonu

Manu TuilagiIf the RFU and Premiership Rugby do not do something about the league, English rugby could follow in the same steps as English football, in that it is unlikely to produce another World Cup-winning team. While the English Premier football league is the most valuable and exciting league in the world at present, it’s struggling to produce technically gifted and skilful young English players who can string enough passes together to compete with Europe, let alone the world.
If a Lions team was picked today it would be predominately made up of Irish and Welsh players who play in a less valuable league, watched by fewer people, but with one crucial difference. There is no relegation. No relegation in rugby means development, better youngsters playing with better skills and technique. At the moment there is a big emphasis in academies on picking kids with size, power, strength and speed, which can be measured easily. Identifying skill is more difficult, and we need more coaches at all levels who can see it, and nurture it.
When you look at New Zealand, Australian and South African rugby and how the Super 15 has really brought them all on, English players must be very envious of their playing standards, skill-wise and technically. Super 15 has no relegation, and you see a lot of skilful rugby played at speed with intensity. Sometimes you watch games that are high scoring, and you question the tackling and defence in general, but in the main these are hardcore games – unlike the English Premiership where we watch dreary forwards slug it out in an arm wrestle.
There will be exceptional teams occasionally because a rugby nation like England with big playing numbers will, in some eras, naturally produce gifted individuals during a given period, and ‘hey presto’, we have a winning team. However, it doesn’t need to be left to chance. With good coaching at junior level continuing through to senior level, and, with England’s numbers, there should be a conveyor belt of talent being produced in most positions most seasons.
Look at the differences we currently have. New Zealand could pick a second team and give most international teams a very good game, whereas England haven’t been able to do that for several years, even though they should be able to match NZ given the money and resources in the game here.
The end of tour report from South Africa is that Stuart Lancaster’s team did not exceed expectation nor fall below it. They hit the middle ground. Three zip was the expected outcome of the tour, maybe sneak a win in the first Yest by catching a relatively new SA team who hadn’t played together, but it wasn’t to be.
Losing the first two Tests by five and nine points, and drawing the last Test, looks like a very closely fought series — but for those watching it looked a little more one-sided, particularly the first 40 minutes of the second Test.
With the 2015 RWC only three seasons away I want to be positive about England’s summer tour to South Africa, but we have to deal with the here and now, not the intangible ‘what could be’.
Of course, Stuart Lancaster must tell his team they did well and they will learn from the experience. We all hope they do, because they have to – and quickly – to be in with a chance of winning RWC 2015 on home soil.
To put England in perspective, look at the ages of the Welsh and Australian teams with their talent and experience having already played a World Cup, and you realise how far England have to go. On June 25 the IRB international rankings had New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at Nos 1,2 and 3 in the world — not a lot of disagreement there – but then it becomes more interesting. England, France, Wales and Ireland are at 4, 5, 6 and 7, and yet England are not a better team than Wales. That’s how wrong stats can be, because stats cannot measure skill.
As always on tours players can enhance their reputations or damage them, and this series against the Springboks was no different. ‘Golden Boy’ Owen Farrell had a particularly hard time getting into games. Farrell struggled to set his backline free and showed no signs of leadership or good game management at fly-half, and these are qualities he must learn over the coming season. He’s young, but so was Dan Carter when he first played.
This allowed Toby Flood to get himself back in the driving seat at 10. He did well in the second Test, and although the Boks were tiring, Flood still had to call the moves, direct the team, and execute, which he did. Unfortunately for England they don’t have the riches of talent at fly-half of New Zealand or Australia – a 10 that can run hard at defences, make a fast arcing run and glide through defenders – but Flood is the closest we have until a young gun steps up.
Watching Manu Tuilagi crashing over the gain-line at inside centre in match three was impressive, but also disappointing because it’s taken 14 caps for it to happen. My hope for Tuilagi is that his coaches at Tigers and England show him how much more he could offer, because I see no reason why he can’t be developed into an English Ma’a Nonu. His fitness looked a little suspect, and they need to work on that because a fit Tuilagi, with the right coaching, will become one of the best centres in the world.
Jonathan Joseph was selected but not used which must have been frustrating, and I hope that changes in the autumn matches. It sometimes happens that you coach a team to be able to play in a certain way, but circumstances mean it doesn’t happen. In Joseph’s case it didn’t happen, and it would be a mistake if he suffered as a consequence because potentially a Tuilagi-Joseph partnership looks good.
England have an embarrassment of good quality scrum halves and I can see Danny Care and Ben Youngs battling it out, just as Kyran Bracken and Matt Dawson did, and Lee Dickson will be there as well.
Elsewhere in the backline Mike Brown showed enough touches of class to merit a return to the side in the autumn, form permitting, and it’s always pleasing to see a form player at club level continue at international level and deliver. Ben Foden and Chris Ashton are proven performers, with Foden contributing well throughout the series and Ashton looking better than in the Six Nations.
The English pack do not play at a physically intense enough level to intimidate the opposition. The scrum and line-out are adequate, but their ability at breakdown isn’t great because they struggle to produce quick ball. England as a team appear to lack natural leaders, and, although Chris Robshaw has done a decent job in a short space of time, his position will come under threat because the back row is a very competitive environment – and he shouldn’t keep his place if other players’ form is better.
The big disadvantage for players coming into this England team is that it’s not an established team, and lacks world class players. However, team-spirit and attitude are also powerful ingredients, and if players are selected for the most part on form it will flourish sooner rather than later.

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