Asked if he will be at the next Rugby World Cup in 2023, Manu Tuilagi sighs.
“I’ll be too old, mate. Yeah, I feel it.”
Too old? Tuilagi would be only 32 at the 2023 tournament in France, but right now he feels more like 52. He can still bust up a defense, though.
He’s been so beaten up by injuries that he has to do 30 minutes of warmups before he can consider doing team drills.
“Ice baths, massage, Pilates, I just try and keep everything loose, especially after games and training,” he says.
His body was everything but loose for more than four years. Hobbled by injuries, the most serious to his groin, he despaired he’d ever play again.
But so enticing was the promise of what Tuilagi could do when he was free of injury — “He can demolish the All Blacks,” England coach Eddie Jones once said — that Jones indulged Tuilagi’s lengthy rap sheet to keep a ticket for him to this Rugby World Cup in Japan.
When the groin, the knees, and the hamstrings were finally all functioning without problems a year ago, he came off the bench against Australia at Twickenham last November to a deafening roar. It felt like a first cap to the nervous Tuilagi. It felt like the last piece of the puzzle for the excited Jones.
A year on, he and England are in the quarterfinals, playing Australia this Saturday in the Oita Sports Dome.
He insists he isn’t trying to make up for lost time. Before this Rugby World Cup, his last public act at a World Cup was in 2011 when he jumped off a ferry into Auckland Harbour and got himself arrested. He missed the 2015 World Cup when he was suspended from the England team for assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver.
The Rugby World Cup isn’t unfinished business to him.
“For me it’s an opportunity to just go out there and try to be the best,” he says. “There is no finished or unfinished business there for me. I’m just really enjoying playing rugby, especially being with this team. They are unbelievable players, and just to have the opportunity to be around them and learn from them and train with them, I’m happy with that.”
After playing three tests in New Zealand in June 2014, Tuilagi started the English club season and pulled his adductor muscle. He hid it from his club medical staff, and strapped it. Four games later he heard a loud pop and couldn’t walk. He dislocated the pubic bone.
While he endured continuous injury setbacks — Tuilagi went to a traditional healer back in his Samoan birthplace — England filled the midfield with the likes of Sam Burgess, Billy Twelvetrees, Alex Lozowski, Kyle Eastmond, Luther Burrell, and Ben Te’o.
When Jones became coach in 2016, he stayed in touch with Tuilagi, giving one of England’s few world-class talents hope.
Tuilagi had faded into a memory, specifically a memory from 2012 when he left All Blacks scattered in his wake at Twickenham. That game has come to define Tuilagi, and it’s debatable whether it has helped or hindered his career.
He had an OK Six Nations this year as his comeback gathered pace but he isn’t the same player as he was in 2012. Also, defenses have improved, and opponents have become bigger.
“I could never be the old me again,” he says. “It’s different now.”
He was once asked how different the 2014-18 period could have been, and said, “I ask that myself at times but I don’t regret anything. Whatever happened there has got me here now.”
In England’s tournament opener, Tuilagi took everyone down memory lane against Tonga as he barged through five defenders to score their first try. A second try came minutes later in support of Jonny May, and his smile lit up the Sapporo Dome and the hearts of English fans.
“We tried to contain him,” Tonga captain Siale Piutau says.
This was what Jones waited for, a battering ram like few others, and England captain Owen Farrell was glad to be on the same side.
“Manu’s someone you look at before you go out for a game and see that big massive smile on his face knowing he’s going to be unbelievably physical,” Farrell says. “That makes you excited to go out there and play with him.”
Tuilagi says he enjoys rugby more now than before he was waylaid.
“I know that it is not going to last forever, that it is not going to last very long,” he says, “so I have got to enjoy the moment while it is here.”