Leicester Tigers boss Richard Cockerill believes Manu Tuilagi is not ready to play for England in Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Wales.
The 24-year-old centre, who scored one of Leicester’s four tries in an incident-packed 31-27 Aviva Premiership win at home to Exeter on Sunday, looks set to be involved in the game at Twickenham after being recalled to the squad.
After a win which moved Leicester up two places to third, Tuilagi joined up with England again but Cockerill thinks he needs another five or six games before he is ready to play Test rugby after 15 months out injured.
Cockerill, Leicester’s director of rugby, said: “Manu did some good things today but I don’t think he is ready to play Test rugby. Even if you put him on the bench to be an impact player for the last half an hour, what happens if you have to put him on after five minutes?”
Cockerill said he would talk to England coach Eddie Jones but added: “He has all the power and if he wants to pick Manu he can pick Manu, whether that’s the right thing or not. He is probably five or six games away from being fully fit to play 80 minutes of Test rugby.”
Tuilagi’s try came before halftime as flanker Tom Croft forced a turnover just inside the Exeter half, and after Vereniki Goneva’s run down the left Leicester moved the ball smartly across the backs and prop Marcos Ayerza put Tuilagi over for a fine score.
Exeter dominated large parts of the game despite having two players – ex-Tigers lock Geoff Parling and Matt Jess – sin-binned.
After leading 17-6 at the interval, Leicester extended their advantage with Peter Betham and Adam Thompstone crossing after the break, before suffering a real fright, conceding 21 unanswered secondhalf points as the visitors fought back from 31-6 down to score tries through Dave Lewis, Ian Whitten and Kai Horstmann.
Exeter head coach Rob Baxter said: “It was them scoring those points at the start of the second half that brought out the best in us. Our scrum was outstanding, it’s not often you come to Welford Road and dominate the scrum.”
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Wales hooker Scott Baldwin has showered praise on England captain and opposite number Dylan Hartley ahead of a crunch Six Nations clash between the countries at Twickenham.
Hartley, who has served a total of 54 weeks’ suspension during a chequered playing career, is at the forefront of England’s revival under their Australian head coach Eddie Jones.
England are undefeated since Hartley was appointed skipper instead of Chris Robshaw, and victory over fellow unbeaten title rivals Wales on March 12 would put a first Six Nations crown since 2011 within touching distance.
Looking ahead to potentially facing Hartley, Baldwin said: “If selected, it will be nice to get out there and have a little tussle.
“He has shown his maturity since taking over as England captain. There have been a few things said about him, but he hasn’t bitten, whereas in the past maybe he would have done. He’s just an aggressive player who wants to do well for his country, and he has led from the front for England, so it will be an interesting battle.”
Hartley’s charge-sheet includes bans ranging from verbal abuse of a referee to punching and head-butting, but Baldwin has short shrift for any suggestion that he might look to wind up the England leader amid Twickenham’s white-hot cauldron.
“That’s not part of my game,” he added. “I just look forward to a tough battle against a good player. His core skills for a hooker are on the money. He is good in the scrums and lineouts, he gets around the park, he carries and he makes his tackles. He’s an all-round player.”
Billy Vunipola insists his emergence as England’s standout performer in the Six Nations is a result of the shackles being taken off by head coach Eddie Jones.
Vunipola was named man of the match for the second time in three games under the Australian after rampaging across Twickenham as champions Ireland were dispatched 21-10 in a full-blooded title clash.
The 23-year-old has been given greater responsibility having been appointed as one of the squad’s three vice captains and has been issued with the remit of inflicting as much damage as possible upon opponents.
Jones has said Vunipola can be the outstanding No. 8 in the game and the Saracens back row is revelling amid the show of faith.
18 Carries— BreatheSport (@BreatheSport) February 27, 2016
10 Defenders beaten
Take a bow Billy Vunipola! pic.twitter.com/2RrFfOEIhB
“I don’t think you’d find anyone in the workplace who, when their boss tells them they’ve done a good job, would be head down, walking through corridors and not really wanting to talk,” Vunipola said.
“He’s given me the freedom to go out there and play my game, get the ball in my hands early and try to make things happen.
“Also in defence, he wants me to try to smash people. He’s encouraging me to do everything. I’m doing OK so hopefully I’ll keep that up and not disappoint him.
“We’re not being told to act in a certain way. I’m not having a dig at anyone here, but I can go out there and try to play my game, imposing myself in any way I can. He’s given me that freedom and that’s something I’ve thrived on so far and hopefully I can carry that on.
“This is most probably the best three games I’ve put together for England. That was the biggest thing for me, that consistency. But also playing well.”
Vunipola’s reward for scattering Ireland in a key victory for the Jones regime is a cheat meal.
“That’s what I hold out for all week. Whatever is flying about. I’m easy – chips, burgers, chocolate, whatever,” Vunipola said.
Ireland were on the receiving end of England’s best performance of the Six Nations to date and their attack is beginning to take shape with players standing flatter and placing greater pace on the ball.
Anthony Watson and Mike Brown ran in second-half tries to sweep the game out of reach, but it was the performance of George Ford at fly-half that really caught the eye of Jones.
“George was beautiful out there, beautiful. Poetry in motion. If (former Australia coach) Bob Dwyer was here, he’d be that happy. He was flat, at the line, committing defenders. He was wonderful,” Jones said.