MANU Tuilagi has been headline news throughout his career, whether skittling opponents, getting into late-night scrapes with the authorities, or facing five seasons of injury hell. Nothing has changed with this week’s transfer stories that he is about to end a decade as a Leicester player by joining Racing 92.
If Tuilagi’s move to the Parisian club comes to pass, it will bring an end to his England career for at least the three years of his French contract following the 2019 World Cup. Given that he has only just returned to the Red Rose starting line-up in the current Six Nations after his long battle to reach full fitness again, the potential cross-Channel move is rightly being represented as a stark choice.
It is one between country – as in international rugby augmenting a healthy Tigers salary – and family security, as in banking a £2.5m pay-cheque from Racing.
Having started a family – his daughter, Leilani, was born last summer – and with his Leicester contract up for renewal this summer, it has been mooted for some time that Tuilagi has been the main target of the French club.
Despite a report that he has signed for Racing already, there are counter-rumours that it is not a signed, sealed and delivered deal. What we do know for sure is that the 27-year-old England centre fuelled that speculation when he was seen visiting Racing’s training ground on the outskirts of Paris soon after being part of Eddie Jones’ side that had thrashed France at Twickenham a fortnight ago.
Opinions over whether Tuilagi should go or stay are divided, with some claiming that he owes Leicester a debt of loyalty, stretching back to Tigers fans launching a petition to keep the Samoan-born teenager in Britain when it was discovered he had outstayed his visa.
Former England captain Lewis ‘Mad Dog’ Moody takes a different stance. The legendary Leicester flanker, who saw the young Tuilagi coming through the academy ranks at Welford Road, and played a couple of seasons alongside him before being told he was surplus to requirements, says that Leicester are not paragons of virtue in terms of loyalty.
Moody, who played a part in all seven matches in England’s 2003 World Cup-winning campaign, and was outstanding in England’s 2007 World Cup turn-around, says he speaks from experience having transferred to Bath in 2010.
Despite being appointed England captain later that year, and for the 2011 World Cup, the manner of his leaving Leicester still rankles with Moody.
“The game is changing now, and the loyalty of players and love of a club which went both ways, and meant they stayed throughout their careers, has gone. If Leicester did not want Manu any more they would not have hesitated to let him go – as they did with me when I was 30, despite being with the club man and boy.”
However, Moody is not convinced that Tuilagi has signed on the dotted line.
“This will not be an easy move for Manu if it comes off – and I’d be surprised if it has all been agreed this early. The reports that Racing have offered an annual £850k for three years, set against a yearly £450k Leicester offer, and a possible further England payment of £250k, means that over that period he could earn about £500k more by going to France.
“What Manu has to weigh up is whether representing England, and the Tigers, is more important than being able to support his family for the rest of his life. Yes, the club supported him when he was injured for over three years, but by comparison with what other clubs are offering Leicester are fairly stingy – and the game is not that simple any more.
“With the money being touted around it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes – and although Leicester have supported him I can understand 100 per cent why he would do so.”
Moody, who won 71 England caps, then touches on the battle for primacy between country and club that Rugby Union is starting to wrestle with in earnest. “I always viewed the pinnacle of the game to be playing for my country, and if I had to make that decision at the age of 27 – like he has to – I would have found it very difficult.”
He adds: “I had bigger offers on the table from Sale and Harlequins in 2002-03 when I was a bit younger than him, and playing for England, and had been relatively injury-free. Having been with Leicester since school I decided to stay at Welford Road.”
However, Moody says that since then the landscape has changed: “When I retired seven or eight years ago the club game was already being run like a business, but it is even more so now. So, when £1m a year opportunities like this come around, as they did for Dan Carter at Racing and Charles Piutau at Bristol, you can understand why it would tempt a young man like Manu Tuilagi.
“Remember also that Samoan culture is about supporting the extended family, and often some of the salaries of Pacific Island players go back to them.”
Moody also takes issue with the assumption that a three-year move to France will bring the curtain down on Tuilagi’s England career for good: “There are players like Sonny Bill Williams who have left the All Blacks just after one World Cup and then returned to represent them at the next one. So, maybe it’s possible for Manu to go to France after the 2019 World Cup and come back to the Premiership at the age of 31 and, if his body holds up, play in the 2023 World Cup.”
He points to Chris Ashton’s England rehabilitation after returning from France as another example: “It rarely happens with England players, but maybe Chris Ashton is an example of how it can be done – he left for Toulon in 2016, but since joining Sale at the start of this season he has worked his way back into the England squad.”
Moody says that if Tuilagi does decide to try his luck in France’s Top 14 there are pitfalls he will have to avoid – such as turning into an English Mathieu Bastareaud.
“If he goes to Paris he will be lauded as a star, and it will be much more difficult for him to stay at peak fitness. I’ve not played in the Top 14 but have spoken to plenty of players who have, and in France the emphasis is much more on you to make sure you stay in condition, and I know that Dan Carter religiously did his own stuff.
“In France you need something extra around you to be at the peak of your game, because the club strength and conditioning is not at the same level as it is in the Premiership. Over there, as long as you deliver on the pitch it doesn’t matter what you look like – and Bastareaud is a case in point. Imagine if he had the same attitude to fitness most English clubs do, so that he was at least five kilos lighter. Having less weight to lug around could transform him.
“I am not sure how easy Manu will find French rugby, with all the distractions that come with living in Paris. At Leicester he has had a really close support network which wants to see him at his best. They have known him since he was a kid, and know how to boost him when he’s on a low, and keep him grounded when he’s on a high. Manu has grown up as a pro athlete, and it is easier when you have guys like Alex Martin, the Tigers S&C coach, who find what is right for the individual.”
If Tuilagi does set sail for France, Moody says that his star quality will be missed by England, the Premiership, and most of all by the fans.
“It will be a pity for England to miss out on Manu if he goes to France, but even more of a shame for the fans who will be deprived of seeing him play at international level.
“There is no one like him, especially in the Premiership, and when he is at the top of his game he is unstoppable. When he is fit he is one of the most impressive talents I’ve seen, truly world-class. It’s just a pity he’s had the injuries.”
However, Moody says that so far Tuilagi’s Six Nations comeback has been very encouraging: “He is not quite at his fighting weight yet, but the Irish were so nervous that he attracted two or three defenders every time – part of that is because as well as his power he has a nice skill set when it comes to getting that ball out from contact situations.”
Moody’s appreciation of Tuilagi’s prowess is matched by his personal affection for him. “Manu is a cracking lad. Everyone has their flaws, and he has had his run-ins when he was a young and a bit foolhardy, and more recently due to the frustrations of being injured for long periods. I know what that’s like, and it can be hard to deal with.
“Deep down he’s a team player, a family man, and he works hard at improving his game, and is good fun to have around. He’ll be a big loss for Leicester if he goes. He’s always been a prolific talent, and his family will be forever linked with the club as part of a dynasty that began with Freddie (Tuilagi) moving to the Leicester from St Helens, and Manu and his brothers arriving soon afterwards.”
It is not all about the past either, because Moody is convinced that whatever club Tuilagi decides to call home next season, he could have a big say in England’s international fortunes over the coming months.
“He could be a huge part of England’s World Cup journey, and at his best he would grace any side. It’s about getting the best out of him…”
Whichever way he chooses, having spent so long on the sidelines, Manu Tuilagi will not lack the motivation to make more headlines.
NICK CAIN / Photo: Getty Images
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