You might say Marcus Smith is more blessed with the hands of god but when I think about Manu Tuilagi and how he is so often billed as England’s saviour I cannot help but think of someone like Diego Maradona. Manu-dona if you will. Maybe it’s a nickname that works better for Maro Itoje but there is no one else in the England setup for whom there is almost a messianic vision whenever he is fit to play.
I was reflecting after the autumn how we had seen Smith, Tuilagi and Henry Slade start together for less than 10 minutes and now they haven’t even made it to the start line. First and foremost it’s a monumental disappointment for Tuilagi himself, having fought back from injury, but he has been here before and he will get himself in the right frame of mind to come back later in the tournament.
You also can’t underestimate how keenly his absence will be felt in the squad and not just because they’ve lost one of their best baristas. He’s an incredibly popular player and he is one of the best gainline players in the world. Put simply, his sheer presence on the field breeds confidence around him.
I expect Joe Marchant to come in and that represents both a challenge and an opportunity for him. A challenge because he left the England camp on Tuesday and spent the rest of the week preparing to play on the wing for Harlequins at Worcester. Adapting to what he will now face is tough but it is an opportunity: no disrespect to Worcester, but as a former player I know where I’d rather be. It helps that he is a very intelligent rugby player as well. He has the skills to cope, he just needs to embrace the challenge if Eddie Jones does hand him the starting jersey.
That would mean a shift to inside-centre for Slade but maybe the player Tuilagi’s absence affects the most is Harry Randall. He was selected to start at scrum-half to bring a quick tempo, to inject some real pace at the start of the match and fundamental to that would have been the gainline power of Tuilagi. For all that Marchant would bring, he does not bring that kind of threat so Randall’s game management skills are going to be tested by Wales.
There has been a clamour for Randall to start due to his form and the excitement he brings, but now he has been picked there is a sense of surprise. I’m thrilled for him and I hope the day is made equally memorable for Ben Youngs if he comes off the bench and breaks the great Jason Leonard’s all-time men’s caps record. I love the confidence shown in Randall by Jones, I love that conviction to build towards the future and next year’s World Cup but there is still part of me, the cautious part, that looks to all that experience Youngs brings, all those caps, and feels a bit of concern. All the more so without the gainline power of Tuilagi.
Randall, like several of the players in this team, will be sampling a Six Nations match at Twickenham for the first time but I do not share the concerns some people will have over that inexperience. I believe they will have learned a lot from the disappointment of the defeat by Scotland and the bad press that followed. I just sense that the personality of this team has changed. It ismore open, it is really honest and there is a far better aggregation of thoughts than under previous regimes and previous captains. Courtney Lawes takes a lot of credit for that and the significance of his return cannot be underestimated.
Looking from the outside, it feels as if the bandwidth of knowledge, while it has always been there, now comes more from all of the group rather than certain sections. In previous leadership roles there was a group made up of Saracens, but not any more. There’s a better ability to test the temperature of the squad, and understand how the whole group is feeling. The division of leadership labour is distributed more evenly across players from different clubs, which allows everyone to fully understand where the squad is, who they are, what they want to be, how they’re feeling and how they are behaving.
That will be crucial on Saturday because, make no mistake, this is now knockout rugby. Ireland have a pass this weekend, maybe France do too because they’ve won both their matches, but for Scotland, England and Wales this is quarter-final weekend. Win, and they move on to the semis, still in the hunt for the title. Lose and they are out of the running. Feeding the England players that message is a fine balance because they have to understand the gravity of the game against Wales in isolation, as well as the bearing it has on the championship. The players have to understand that without being put under so much pressure that it paralyses them.
On the whole I’m optimistic about England’s chances. The fallow week came at a good time for them, having their captain back is a huge bonus, and there is a more settled feel to the team now. It’s not far off the team that could be playing in a World Cup quarter-final in 18 months’ time. The obvious exception is Tuilagi but if Saturday shows anything, it must be that England can cope without him.