Manu Tuilagi is poised to make his first Six Nations start in six years after Ben Te’o was ruled out of Saturday’s clash with Ireland by a side strain.
England must enter the title showdown in Dublin without their first-choice inside centre due to the injury sustained in training on Monday, paving the way for Tuilagi to be restored to the midfield and for Owen Farrell and George Ford to be reunited as twin playmakers.
In an additional blow, blindside flanker Brad Shields has failed to recover from his own side strain to ensure Mark Wilson will continue in the back row.
Seven players have been trimmed from Eddie Jones’ training squad ahead of Thursday’s team announcement, but Tuilagi is not among those heading home as he closes in on making a first Test start in any competition for four years.
The bulldozing 27-year-old Leicester centre has been stricken by serious knee, chest and groin injuries that have him cherishing every moment in the game – and superstitiously touching wood every time he says he is fit.
When asked if he is ready to start, Tuilagi replied: “Definitely. It helps a lot to come into the England environment.
“The way we train is next level in terms of the speed and intensity. That definitely helps you going into the international games.
“You appreciate it 100 per cent more after having so many injuries. Before, when you are always fit and playing, you don’t really think about it because it hasn’t happened to you.
“But when I have been out for a long time, now I have got the opportunity to play and I’m really thankful. I’ve got the opportunity again to do what I really love doing and I have to take it.
“Before, you just played. You didn’t really think about it too much. I didn’t have that much experience. You just wanted to get your hands on the ball. But when you get older and learn more about the game there is a lot more to it.
“There is a different way of getting over the gainline, which for me now is to go into a hole or gap. But sometimes there won’t be a gap there so for me. So that bit is the same – run hard.”
Te’o’s absence points to a significant overhaul of the original plan, with Tuilagi’s power present at outside centre and Ford and Farrell occupying 10 and 12.
Giant Bath wing Joe Cokanasiga has also yet to reach full fitness from a knee problem, excluding him from Eddie Jones’ plans.
It is hoped that Te’o, Shields and Cokanasiga will recover for the round-two match against France and they are to stay at the squad’s camp in the Algarve, where they will continue to receive treatment.
“They’re not far away from where we want them to be, but obviously for a game of this magnitude we need everyone at 100 per cent,” assistant coach Neal Hatley said.
Wilson, who is poised to deputise for Shields, was named England’s player of the series last autumn, with three superb appearances at number eight and one at openside flanker propelling him into World Cup contention.
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It may be all change at Abu Dhabi Harlequins with the sudden departure of renowned coach Mike McFarlane, but the winning habit remains judging by their 29-25 triumph over Jebel Ali Dragons on Friday night.
Senior players Craig Nutt and Luke Stevenson have stepped up into the sizeable void left by McFarlane, who returned to the United Kingdom last week for personal reasons.
Prop Nutt and fly-half Stevenson will take on dual player/coach roles for the remainder of the campaign, although Nutt revealed that a large group of current and ex-players, as well as coaches, will lead the team collectively.
With three games of the West Asia Premiership season remaining they kept in touch with Bahrain at the top of the table on Friday with a four-point win over Dragons – who also said goodbye to their coach, Wales and British & Irish Lions great Mike Phillips, earlier this month.
The bonus point win leaves Quins nine points adrift of Bahrain with three games to go.
“We are just helping out, we are not the official coaches, it’s a collective effort until the end of the season,” Welshman Nutt told Sport360 following Quins’ win in Jebel Ali.
“At Quins, all is the same really. We still have all the same coaches in place and some of the players and ex-players have put their hands up to help out to spread the workload, as Mike leaving has left a hole, obviously.
“He was a top coach and a great bloke.”
McFarlane brought unparalleled success to Quins during four-and-a-half years in charge – lifting 10 of 19 trophies available from the time he took over in the summer of 2015 from Jeremy Manning to the culmination of the 2017/18 campaign.
Even amid testing times in the latter part of his reign, McFarlane kept Quins hyper competitive.
Their three-year sponsorship deal with Etihad was not renewed on the eve of the 2017/18 season, while there were also a number of high-profile player departures plus the blow of seeing influential skipper Ben Bolger forced into retirement through concussion.
Despite this, they remained competitive on the field as they, Dragons, Bahrain and Dubai Exiles contested and shared the major honours.
Quins retained the Champions League title and added the inaugural UAE Premiership Cup, but the major titles avoided them.
They lost the West Asia Premiership crown to Dragons in Bahrain, the latter beat Exiles in the West Asia Cup final, Exiles beat Dragons in the Dubai Sevens final and Quins lost the final game of the season and their grip on the UAE Premiership to Exiles.
More departures last summer precipitated the opinion that yet more struggle was to follow. But Quins have been the one team to keep pace with runaway league leaders Bahrain – who thrashed Quins 49-15 in the previous round of action.
“With the season it was tough result last week, even harder watching it on TV as I was away,” added Nutt, who revealed Quins will concentrate on the West Asia Cup with Bahrain in sight of the Premiership title, while they lead the UAE Premiership by 17 points from Exiles.
“Bahrain are a quality side and we are hoping and pushing for one last crack at them at the end of the season, hopefully in the final.
“In the UAE league we are looking good there for the time being but we’re not taking anything for granted as all the sides can beat you on their day in this league.”
West Asia Premiership results:
Bahrain f-f Eagles
Dubai Hurricanes 27 Dubai Exiles 32
Jebel Ali Dragons 25 Abu Dhabi Harlequins 29
England forward Maro Itoje has signed a new three-and-a-half-year contract with Saracens, the Gallagher Premiership Rugby club have announced.
Itoje, 24, who started out in Saracens’ academy, made his 100th senior appearance for the club earlier this season.
“Saracens is delighted to announce Maro Itoje has committed his future to the club,” read a statement on their official website. “The 24-year-old, who became a Sarries centurion in October, has put pen to paper on a deal until the summer of 2022.”
Itoje, who signed his first professional contract seven years ago, is widely regarded as one of the best second rows in world Rugby.
“I’m really pleased to be staying on at Saracens,” he said. “I’ve been at the club for 10 years now so I’m really excited to see what the future holds for this great team.”
Director of Rugby Mark McCall added: “At Saracens, we take pride in developing players from within.
“Maro is an exceptional young man, on and off the field, and it’s been a privilege seeing him develop. We are thrilled he is staying with us.
“He is part of a large group of homegrown players who have committed their futures to the club. We are excited about exploring their potential and where we can go as a team.”
Itoje made his senior debut for Saracens against Cardiff Blues in 2014 before captaining England Under-20s to the Junior World Championship title.
He was appointed Saracens captain aged 20 and has led the London-based club to back-to-back Champions Cup successes and three Premiership titles.
Itoje has made 26 senior appearances for England and played in all three Tests for the British & Irish Lions during their drawn series in New Zealand in 2017.