Opinion: England's five midfield options who could fill the large Manu Tuilagi hole

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Opinion: England’s five midfield options who could fill the large Manu Tuilagi hole
© PA Images Wasps v Leicester Tigers – Gallagher Premiership – Coventry Building Society Arena

Since his international debut for England in 2011, centre Manu Tuilagi has been England’s most effective rugby player. When he’s fit of course.

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In that decade and a bit since his bow, England have played 135 Test matches and Tuilagi has managed to feature in just 47 of those, starting a remarkable 40 times only.

Without Tuilagi, England’s backs have failed to gather go-forward. They lack impact, pace, power and direction, four key ingredients of any Test backline. The chat has been simple – find another Tuilagi, reduce England’s reliance on him, whistle up another 115kg centre to do a similar job.

England missing their number one centre

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But here’s the thing; England do not produce players like Tuilagi. It’s simply not in our genetics. The combination of bulk, fast twitch fibres, skill and power come around once in a decade in the northern hemisphere, where young athletes just don’t mature in physique and in performance quite like the abundance of naturally skilled runners from many parts of the southern hemisphere, and in particular, the South Sea Islands, who provide many of the juggernaut backs we see in Test rugby.

Before Tuilagi, England had Jeremy Guscott – OK, he was a world class outside centre, one of the greats, but he was all about pace over power, despite his defensive brilliance. Will Carling, Will Greenwood, Mike Tindall, Mike Catt, Paul Dodge and Clive Woodward were all wonderful players but they were either skilled enablers for others or defensive rocks. So, to simply say to English rugby, clone me another Tuilagi is rather disingenuous. There’s not been one before him and there’s not one on the horizon now.

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The key is to learn to play in other ways. To use running mobile forwards such as Ellis Genge, Tom Curry and Alex Dombrandt to hit up the channels, but even then, the lack of outright gas is missing.

Sadly, England have held on to their pipe dream for too long now. The spectre of Tuilagi’s latest return is causing them confusion and preventing them to plan for the future in the way they should. The only way forward is, in the short term, to forget about him, learn to play without his huge presence and develop other players with differing USPs. If, by some fortune, he’s fully fit and available in summer 2023, then so be it – take him to France but as a bonus, not as a banker.

In the short term, England have to examine their options, new and old. Of course, should Owen Farrell get himself fit, it’s almost certain that right now, he is the best compromise solution and brings a blend of experience and surety that no other offers. However, there’s a need to look outside the squad to find something different and something that works – here’s the five most exciting talents we would consider.

Dan Kelly (Leicester Tigers)

At 6’0″ and 100kgs, Kelly isn’t quite Tuilagi, but he’s solid, runs powerful lines and is a top quality defender, particularly skilled over the ball. At the age of 20, he’s one for the future, but the future for England’s 12 shirt happens to be right now. Does he have the gas to play at Test level? That remains to be seen but until he’s tested, we won’t find out.

Mark Atkinson (Gloucester)

Atkinson doesn’t lack the size element, standing 6’5″ and weighing 109kgs, but he is far more of a distributor and organiser than he is a charging bull. Nevertheless, his ability to remain square and work with his fly-half to attack either side of the pitch might just work well with Marcus Smith installed at 10, and it’s a great shame that Eddie Jones has consigned him back to the Shed when he should be tested at Twickenham. He still could be the best bet England have, but he needs a chance, despite his venerable age.

Luke Northmore (Harlequins)

His time working with the likes of Dombrandt and Smith gives him a deep knowledge of their style and alongside him in the centre, Andre Esterhuizen is a great role model to learn from. Northmore, at 6’2″ and 103kg is a talented and powerful player, a brilliant defender and probably the quickest of England’s options. Sadly, his hamstring has let him down in Jones’ squad earlier this season and we’re yet to see him feature at Test level.

Max Ojomoh (Bath)

Filling the Bath shirt worn so proudly by his father, Steve, at 5’11” and 100kgs, but potentially the most exciting, Ojomoh’s fusion of clever kicking, high skill levels and game management is way ahead of his callow 21 years. Ojomoh is a supremely gifted player, able to play across the three-quarter line but happiest at 12 and his outstanding performances with the England U20s means he’s a known quantity to Jones. With Ojomoh, you get the feeling it’s a matter more of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ but with the World Cup only 18 months away on the horizon, ‘when’ might very well be this season.

Paolo Odogwu (Wasps)

A man that played prop, hooker and back-row in age grade rugby, Odogwu is still unsure if his best position is wing or centre. Although short at 5’9″, his 100kg frame barrels and bounces into every defence he plays against and he’s the one man with the gas in our picks to truly differentiate and to break down Test structures. Indeed, had he not gotten injured a season ago, he may well have played a fair few Tests by now. Is his primary defence good enough? He’s been known to close a shoulder off a few times and it remains a weakness in his game, but if you want the man with the X-factor, it’s likely to be the buzzing Wasp, although we suspect that long term, his future at Test level is on the wing.

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