Manu Tuilagi developed a head for heights during his latest injury layoff but as he makes his first start in nearly nine months on Friday night the Sale and England centre is hoping the pinnacle of his season is still to come.
Tuilagi made his comeback from an achilles injury last weekend from the bench and made a considerable impact against Bristol with Alex Sanderson subsequently handing him the No 12 jersey against Harlequins. Sale have already booked their top-four spot but victory would boost their hopes of a home semi-final and aid their pursuit of a first Premiership title since 2006.
Eddie Jones will be watching closely with the England head coach yet to decide if Tuilagi is ready to return to the international fold this summer but Warren Gatland will no doubt be keeping a keen interest too. Tuilagi’s comeback ultimately came too late for a place in the British & Irish Lions squad this summer but another promising performance could move him to the top of the standby list.
For now, however, Tuilagi is focused on his club commitments. He had impressed in his seven appearances for Sale at the end of last season before he was struck down and forced to endure another long-term injury absence. In the past snooker has provided escape for Tuilagi – this time he discovered walking in the Peak District and, if the injuries are getting easier to cope with, clearly there is a desire to make up for lost time.
“We knew that was just a process we had to go through so we came up with some ideas to make sure it wasn’t just in the gym,” he said. “We did a bit of hiking, so I wasn’t really thinking about the rehab, I was just enjoying it. We were in the Peak District and by the end of it I really got into it. There’s some beautiful scenery round there, so I’m into hiking now as well!
“It definitely made things easier watching the boys perform the way they’ve been performing. It motivates you to keep doing your bit. Winning is what I aim to do. That’s a given. That’s why you’re here in the first place. You’re not here to just take part – you’re here to win every day. [Another Premiership title] would be massive, for the whole group. To win it would be the icing on the cake.”
Victory against Harlequins would be an eighth in the row in the league for Sale and they are well fancied to do so with the London club choosing to rest a host of front-line stars including Marcus Smith, Danny Care and Alex Dombrandt. Sale, meanwhile, welcome back WillGriff John, Jono Ross and Rohan Janse van Rensburg to their squad but it is Tuilagi’s presence on the teamsheet that catches the eye.
“Having him back in a team is a bit of glue,” said Sanderson. “He raises performance levels in others, not through his own direction but through small comms, engaging with boys, the relationships he has lifts them as a team.
“Add to that what he can do ball-in-hand, to the opposition. It’s going to add isn’t it?. It’s purely form now. We have seen him physically at his best in training. [International involvement in the summer] is down to me to get him as much game time as possible without affecting the consistency of the team.”