Captain Owen Farrell and assistant coach Richard Cockerill have paid tribute to Manu Tuilagi as he prepares to make his 50th England appearance on Saturday against the Springboks.
Coincidentally, as an 18-year-old, Tuilagi made his first senior rugby appearance for Leicester Tigers against South Africa on 6th November 2009 and was on the winning side of a 22-17 scoreline.
It’s taken him eleven years to reach this milestone and a series of injuries have reduced his time in an England shirt thus far.
What stands out the most to those around him despite the setbacks is his love of the game, and England captain Owen Farrell said that Tuilagi inspires him to remember why he’s playing.
“There is no-one who loves playing rugby more. Sometimes he reminds me and I take massive inspiration from him; that with everything that’s going on and how much you are focusing on the performance and working to get better, he loves the game so much.
“There’s always a smile on his face out there, especially in moments like these.” Farrell commented.
England forwards coach Richard Cockerill was Leicester Tigers’ head coach when a young Manu Tuilagi joined the side. The infamous smile that Tuilagi wears has remained unchanged since the start.
“He has a great context of what life’s about. From what life has shown him, he keeps a good perspective on what’s going on. It’s good to see him smiling.” Beamed Cockerill.
Tuilagi’s love of the game isn’t his only stand out quality, his rugby ability and knowledge of the game since a young age have also stood him in good stead on his journey to 50 international caps.
“He’s been a special player with the raw physical ability that he has naturally had and he’s built.
Obviously he’s had some poor injury issues which he has dealt with and come back … but for him to do what he has done, he’s got big and then lost weight, he’s in very good condition now. I am delighted for him.” Cockerill said.
When asked if the young Tuilagi Cockerill first met would recognize himself now, Cockerill commented: “No, not a chance.
“He was always so raw, so aggressive. But the thing with Manu now is that he is a really intelligent rugby player.
“He understands the game really well and he’s a very quick learner. That’s why he’s been so good. Even as a youngster, you could tell him something once and he knows it.
“You add that to his physical capabilities and he’s got a bit of edge hasn’t he? Ask Chris Ashton.”
Born in Samoa, he was named Manu after the warrior who the national side (Manu Samoa) is named after, and being one of six of his brothers to have played rugby, the Tuilagi family have had a huge impact on the sport.
“All of those Tuilagi boys have come from the Islands to the UK to play. They know what that looks like and they’ve taken every opportunity.” Cockerill added.
They’re a credit to themselves, that whole family, and Manu in particular. If you’re the youngest of that clan, then you learn a hard route of growing up.”
Alongside his injury setbacks, there was a chance that he might not have played for England all together. Without the help of Cockerill alongside RFU, Tuilagi would have been playing for Samoa.
He came to England on a six-month holiday visa with plans to be adopted by older brother Freddie.
The long process of the adoption outlasted his visa, and he was due to be deported by the Home Office.
“We had to go to the union and then we got good backing from the Government and that got him where he is today. It was 2009… he’d have been playing for Samoa.” Cockerill explained.
Off the pitch, he’s a vibrant character with a particular prowess for chess and snooker to name a few, alongside impressive barista skills. His mindset has a massive impact on those around him, and he’s a valued member of the team.
“He’s a massive inspiration to people. When you see him by the side of you smiling, not smiling in a way that everything’s brilliant, smiling as in how good is this challenge in front of us, it’s brilliant to have him back in the team.” Farrell added.
Farrell also applauded the achievement of his fellow center this weekend and knows he will get the acclimation he deserves.
“I don’t think there’d be a team in the world who wouldn’t appreciate his talent. He’s been as exciting as he is now, since he was 18.
“To do it for all those years, to have as many setbacks as he’s had and to run out in front of the team tomorrow – and I’m sure he’ll get the ovation that he deserves – is fantastic” Farrell added.
Written by Imogen Ainsworth