In a year when the best rugby players from Britain and Ireland will head down to New Zealand, the news of Manu Tuilagi’s latest injury setback was a crushing blow to many. For Leicester Tigers – a club that have had a turbulent start to 2017 – Tuilagi’s anterior cruciate ligament damage denies them their talisman during a season where they have struggled to keep up with the elite both in England and Europe. Having only featured once for England under Eddie Jones last year due to other injury issues Tuilagi’s absence may be not be as decisive, yet in a year when England strive to chase down New Zealand and become the dominant test team in world rugby, losing a player who would have brought in some fresh energy and momentum is a huge disappointment. Whilst with the Leicester man being one of very few players from the Northern Hemisphere to have experienced victory over an All Blacks side at international level, Lions coach Warren Gatland will also be ruing his luck as he looks to beat the World champions in their own back-yard this summer. For Tuilagi himself it is yet another crushing blow to a promising career that has been decimated by injury.
Still relatively young at the age of 25, Manu Tuilagi has already packed much into his young career. Capped by England in 2011 at the age of just 20, over the next two years of his career Tuilagi played in a World Cup, won the domestic league title with his club and helped the British and Irish Lions secure a historic series victory in Australia in 2013. Yet since 2013, the England centre’s career has been defined by injuries and off-the-field problems. Having won 21 international caps from 2011 to 2013, Tuilagi has appeared for England just five times over the last three years. As well as suffering from a number of injuries during this time, Tuilagi was arrested in the summer of 2015 for assaulting two police officers and in light of this was told by then-England Head coach Stuart Lancaster that he would not be considered for international selection until January, subsequently ruling him out of the 2015 World Cup, which was to be held in England. Now with his latest injury once again ruling himself out of action for club and country – as well as the Lions – Tuilagi’s career is in danger of following a similar path to that of another international centre from the British Isles.
Gavin Henson’s career in many ways mirrors Tuilagi’s. A supremely talented rugby player who burst onto the international scene at a young age. In 2005, at the age of 23, Henson was the Welsh talisman, as his inspiring performances led Wales to their first Grand Slam in 27 years. A couple of months later and Henson was picked for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. Despite playing in just one of the three tests in what was an embarrassingly one-sided series, the young Ospreys centre returned to Wales seemingly with the world at his feet. Yet a combination of injuries as well as a suspension for elbowing an opponent restricted him to just seven caps in two years – all of which ended in defeat – and having missed out on selection for the 2003 World Cup, he missed out on selection for the 2007 tournament having failed to recover from yet another injury. Failing to build on the success of the 2005 Grand Slam, Wales endured a miserable two years in 2006 and 2007 culminating in an early exit from the 2007 World Cup in France. With changes needing to be made within Welsh rugby, national head coach Gareth Jenkins was replaced by New Zealander Warren Gatland. Having recovered from the injury which had scuppered his World Cup ambitions, Henson was soon back in the fold and started at centre in Gatland’s first game in charge, the Six Nations opener at Twickenham against an England side who had reached the World Cup final just a few months previous. However, despite being down 16-6 at half-time, Wales recovered to secure a 26-19 victory and claim their first win at Twickenham for 20 years. With the momentum gained from that historic victory, Henson and Wales rewound the clock as they secured another unexpected Grand Slam, with Henson once again playing a key role in defence and attack throughout the tournament where he played every game. Once again Henson was back at the very top of the international game, but once again his fall from grace was swift. Injuries and off-the-field issues returned to haunt him and despite playing in three of Wales’ five Six Nations matches in 2009, a few months later Henson announced he would be taking a break from rugby claiming he had fallen out of love with the game. In October 2010, 18 months after he last played professional rugby it was announced he would join English club Saracens, and duly made his debut in December of that year. Yet as if to highlight his personal demise having spent 9 years playing for Swansea and then the Ospreys, Henson has since played for six different clubs over the last eight years. During this time he was sacked by two of his clubs for varying circumstances including alleged fighting with team-mates at Toulon and getting drunk and behaving inappropriately on a flight home with Cardiff Blues. Despite all this there was still an unyielding hope amongst Welsh supporters that the most talented Welsh player in a generation would find his form and be back in the red jersey. Hope seemed rekindled in 2011 when having returned to some sort of form, Henson was included in a training camp for the 2011 World Cup, yet another injury picked up in a warm-up game against England ruled him out of the tournament, just when it looked like he had done enough to make Gatland’s final squad. The match against England was Henson’s 33rd and final cap for his country, a paltry total for a player who had the potential to be one of the world’s greatest.
Like there was with Henson, there have been many false dawns for England supporters with Tuilagi. Having stayed injury-free and made himself one of England’s most important players, the last few years have seen him endure dreadful luck with injury whilst his own stupid actions in getting arrested in 2015 denied him a once-in-a-career opportunity to play in a home World Cup. Yet with players like Henson and Tuilagi, supporters will never lose hope because of the natural talent they possess whether it be Henson’s supreme passing, football skills and tackling that saw him guide Wales to two Grand Slam titles, or Tuilagi’s sheer strength and power that saw him almost single-handedly destroy the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012. However talent can only get you so far, Henson had it but didn’t make the most of it, Tuilagi undoubtedly has it and has shown us as much in glimpses but the jury is still out on whether he can fulfil his vast potential in the same way that legends like O’Driscoll did. At 25, the England centre still has time on his side and with 26 caps already to his name will surely have a longer international career than the Welshman whose career he shares so many common traits with, but sooner rather than later Tuilagi needs to show the rugby world that he is ready to step up and become one of the greats.