Manu Tuilagi has one last training session to prove his fitness for England‘s final autumn series international against Australia at Twickenham.
Tuilagi was expected to be ruled out of Saturday’s climax to the autumn by the groin strain that has prevented him from playing this month, only to be retained in a 26-man squad that is making final preparations to face the Wallabies.
Eddie Jones names his team at lunchtime on Thursday (UK time) and was assessing Tuilagi’s availability after Wednesday afternoon’s make-or-break session.
The England head coach stated on Monday that Leicester’s powerhouse centre was “very doubtful”, but in a surprise twist to his long-running fitness saga he could participate against Australia.
“We need to find out where he’s at and whether he’s a 100 per cent,” defence coach John Mitchell said.
“We expect him to train this afternoon, but like all players we intend to have restricted training activities based on their individual needs.”
Tuilagi was primed to make his first England appearance for two years in the autumn opener against South Africa, only to be withdrawn from the bench when his groin tightened up in training.
Jones has been cautious over his fitness ever since, mindful of the long run of groin, knee, hamstring and pectoral injuries that have blighted his career.
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The autumn internationals draw to a close this weekend with plenty left to play for as nations wrap up 2018 and ready themselves for a World Cup year.
A week after Ireland took the scalp of the All Blacks, we look at the key talking points heading into the final round of fixtures.
Ireland v USA
It may not be the glamour tie of the weekend but Ireland are the team on everyone’s lips following last week’s 16-9 win over New Zealand.
The United States may not provide quite the same test but Joe Schmidt will be left with something of a quandary.
He will be keen to give as many people as possible a game to continue adding depth to his squad – a critical attribute heading towards the World Cup. However, the Kiwi will be wary enough of the US to not take them lightly.
Having lost just once in 2018, eyebrows were raised in June then they turned over Scotland, so they are by no means the whipping boys they once were. Ireland will win, but the level at which they are able to experiment will be the main question.
England v Australia
The tie of the weekend. England com will go into the match as strong favourites to end their autumn campaign with a third win, while the Wallabies will be desperate for a win that could end a miserable 2018 on a high note.
Eddie Jones will field as close to a full-strength side as he can, while counterpart Michael Cheika will be sweating on fitness concerns over David Pocock, and a bug that is sweeping through the rest of the squad.
Pocock will be key. If he plays he can dominate on the floor – both in terms of slowing English ball down, but also gaining key turnovers that would allow them to play in the right areas of field.
Australia are in survival mode, and must get the basics right otherwise England could run riot. The scrum has been a facet England have dominated in the past and will look to do so again. If Australia can be solid in the set piece and breakdown, and play in the right areas they can be competitive – if not their year will finish on a predictable low.
Wales v South Africa
Wales sit in the rather unfamiliar position of having a 100% record this autumn. While the calibre of the opposition may not have been the highest, wins over Scotland, Australia and Tonga, have given Warren Gatland reason for hope at a time of year that has not always been fruitful.
South Africa will be seen as very beatable in the Wales camp. Despite a win over the All Blacks this year, the Springboks failed to beat England and limped to a win over Scotland last weekend.
Wales will see a potential weakness on the South African wings, and with a probable pairing of George North and Josh Adams, with Liam Williams at full-back it’s an area thy have the firepower to exploit.
South Africa will look to boss the game up front and turn proceedings into a forward battle – one they are more than capable of winning.
Hendre Pollard has been commanding in the 10 jersey and will again be pivotal in dictating the pace and territorial location of the game.
Scotland v Argentina
Scotland have once again been full of promise this autumn, but failed to deliver the win that lifts them from also-rans into a team that would really worry the top teams in the world.
Game management denied them a win over South Africa last week, but they should have enough to see off what now looks like a tired Argentina side that will already be happy with their 2018 return.
Italy v New Zealand
If this fixture for New Zealand was against one of the powers of northern hemisphere rugby, we’d now be sat questioning their response to last week’s defeat to Ireland.
As it happens, victory over Italy will give them a regulation return to the ‘w’ column.
Key for the Italians will be how long they can live with the side still ranked number one in the world.
France v Fiji
Another fixture that doesn’t exactly tickle the taste buds. Les Blues got an important win over Argentina last time out a should follow that up with a comfortable afternoon against the islanders.
Chris Ashton‘s international comeback has stalled after the England wing was ruled out of Saturday’s climax to the autumn series against Australia by a calf problem.
Ashton will be limited to three appearances this month due to the injury sustained in the 35-15 victory over Japan at Twickenham, a scan confirming that he will be sidelined for a fortnight.
The 31-year-old became available for England once more when he left Toulon for Sale over the summer and Eddie Jones immediately selected him in his squad.
When Manu Tuilagi was ruled out of the opener against South Africa because of a groin strain, he was cleared to win his 40th cap and first in over four years.
“Chris Ashton was hurt in the game on Saturday,” forwards coach Steve Borthwick said.
“He’s been scanned and investigated and unfortunately the injury means he will be out for a couple of weeks. He’ll leave camp today (Tuesday).
“Chris is a fantastic player who knows his way to the try-line. He’s been great around the squad the last few weeks. It’s very disappointing he’s out.”
Ashton fell out of favour under Stuart Lancaster and then Jones, whose opportunities to pick the dual code international were restricted by a succession of bans.
He made only one appearance for Sale this season due to a seven-week suspension incurred for a tip-tackle before being picked by England.
Jonny May and Jack Nowell are set to be restored to the wings for the first time since the series opener against South Africa, but Bath powerhouse Joe Cokanasiga is a fringe contender to start.
Cokanasiga produced a promising debut against Japan, using his 6’4” and 18 stone frame to good effect to score the decisive try and make a number of dents on the Brave Blossoms line.
However, having just turned 21, the Wallabies might be deemed too big a hurdle to face.
“Joe did really well. He’s got massive potential and is really eager to learn and hungry to learn,” Borthwick added.
“Physically he’s got some great attributes and attitude wise he wants to be the best he can be. He’s a young guy who has a lot of potential.”
Tuilagi is unlikely to be involved on Saturday as he continues his battle for full fitness, but the Leicester centre remains with the squad and has yet to be officially ruled out against Australia.
“Manu trained very hard this morning (Tuesday) and has another session today. He’s working really hard to get as fit as possible, so we’ll keep assessing him,” Borthwick said.