Manu Tuilagi is in the frame to return for what England have billed as a “free swing” at the grand-slam chasing Ireland on Saturday as Steve Borthwick’s wounded side seek to salvage their Six Nations campaign.
With Ollie Lawrence ruled out with a hamstring injury, Borthwick is forced into another midfield reshuffle with Tuilagi – Ireland’s tormentor-in-chief – available after suspension for the daunting trip to Dublin.
Tuilagi is yet to feature in the Six Nations this year but could be tasked with adding some much-needed power to England’s ranks. The 31‑year‑old centre was overlooked by Borthwick for England’s matches against Scotland and Italy before a red card on duty for Sale ruled him out of the win against Wales and the dismal defeat by France last weekend.
Lawrence’s injury, coupled with England’s limp response to France’s physicality, could pave the way for Tuilagi to return in Dublin, however, in a match in which Marcus Smith has suggested there is little to lose.
“There’s going to be a lot of noise and a lot of pressure on us, and we’ve got to become tighter as opposed to splinter because this is a big test of our togetherness as a squad, of our resolve,” Smith said. “There’s no better week than a free swing at Ireland.”
Tuilagi’s last England appearance came in the autumn and, though he was out of form in the latter stages of Eddie Jones’s tenure, at his best he has wreaked havoc against Ireland and has a 100% win record in six previous outings. He has missed the past three meetings but was in devastating form in England’s 57-15 win in a World Cup warm-up match in 2019 and earlier that year was similarly destructive as Jones’s side clinched a dominant victory in the opening round of the Six Nations.
That day Tuilagi starred with Owen Farrell inside him at fly-half and Henry Slade his centre partner and Borthwick may be tempted to rekindle that combination following England’s capitulation to France. Smith was tasked with running a more expansive gameplan but in terrible conditions and in the face of French superiority he failed to inspire any sort of attacking cohesion.
Borthwick may also be tempted to deploy Tuilagi at outside-centre with Farrell in the No 12 jersey and either Smith or George Ford, who was also included on Monday in a 36-man squad, at fly‑half. Joe Marchant and Guy Porter are other centre options but Tuilagi – who has been training with the squad despite his suspension – could provide Borthwick with an answer to his power problem.
By and large Borthwick has stuck by the players who were trounced on Saturday with Lawrence the only member of the matchday 23 not included this week. Borthwick has also included the London Irish wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, the Harlequins tighthead prop Will Collier and the Sale lock Jonny Hill, who was briefly in camp last week after Courney Lawes suffered a shoulder injury.
Smith will be hoping he is given another shot at fly-half and believes England can bring about the necessary improvements in such a short space of time. “You want to test yourselves against the best – and we’re going to the best in the world – then we’re going to have to step up a gear,” he said. “We’ve got to get better quickly because the challenge doesn’t come much greater than Ireland away in Dublin.
“We’ve got to bounce back. There’s only one way to go now, and it’s to stand up and fight as hard as we can, play as hard as we can for the shirt. Time is against us, but I believe we’ve still got time. With the characters we’ve got in the group we can turn things around very quickly.”
Smith also believes England can take heart from their performance against Ireland last year. Ireland won 32-15 but the scores were level at 15-15 with 15 minutes to go despite Charlie Ewels’s second-minute red card. “Dublin away is going to be a tough test, but we’ll take massive confidence from what we did to them last year,” he said. “We were very close, with a man down, and we’re better than we were last year.”
Andy Farrell, meanwhile, has warned his Ireland side that England will be significantly improved after their shocking performance against France last week. “I definitely don’t [think that performance was reflective of England’s quality],” he said.
“Those games are one-offs. France were on a high, and the emotions were probably dented a little from England. But knowing the players, knowing the coaching staff and everyone involved, there’s no better place to turn it round. They’re a good side. We’ve seen that time and time again. They’ll be a really, really tough opponent to meet.”