Tuilagi returns for England, but O'Driscoll takes centre stage

Mar 14, 2014
Gavin Mortimer

English centre to feature against Italy, but Ireland will win title with victory over France

David Rogers/Getty Images

MANU TUILAGI is set to make his first appearance for England in 12 months tomorrow when England play Italy in Rome. The 22-year-old centre hasn't played for his country since March last year thanks to a chest injury that kept him out of last year's autumn internationals and most of this season's Six Nations.

But he is now recovered and coach Stuart Lancaster has named Tuilagi on the bench for the vital clash with Italy and it seems certain that the Samoan-born star will appear at some point in the second half to crash through tired Italian tackles.

"It is great to be back with the England boys, joining in and trying to continue the good work," said Tuilagi, who has scored ten tries in 21 Tests. "I know I have only had one game but I have been working hard and training hard at Leicester and now with England."

Initially the selection of Tuilagi as a replacement was the one change to the England squad that beat Wales so comprehensively last Sunday, but Lancaster was forced into another switch late on Thursday when prop Joe Marler withdrew for personal reasons. His girlfriend is expecting their first child and the 23-year-old Harlequin decided his priority rested with her. "It is important that Joe is with his partner at this exciting time," said Lancaster. "Family must always come first and everyone in the squad wishes them well."

Marler's place in the starting line-up is taken by Mako Vunipola, a more than able replacement who toured Australia with the British and Irish Lions last summer. England go to Rome as firm favourites and a victory in the early afternoon kick-off would increase the pressure on Ireland, who need to beat France in Paris in the evening game to secure their first title since 2009. Nonetheless Lancaster is taking nothing for granted, conscious that last season Italy beat both France and Ireland in front of their home fans.

"The Wales result was very significant for us but we need to finish the tournament well in Rome," explained the England coach. "We have had a tight turnaround and the key this week has been to manage the players' recovery and get them in the best shape for what will be a tough match against Italy."

Should England lose in Rome and France win in Paris then the title will go to the French, but the bookies have Ireland as favourites in what will be the last appearance in the Test arena of Brian O'Driscoll. The greatest player in the history of Irish rugby wins his 141st cap on Saturday, fifteen years after making his debut as a fresh-faced 20-year-old.

It was a hat-trick of tries from O'Driscoll that inspired Ireland to their last win in Paris in 2000  "I feel we have the capabilities now of winning in Paris," O'Driscoll said earlier in the week. "But I realise how tough a challenge it is. We've won once there in 42 years... but we feel when we go well, we're difficult to contain, so we have to get ourselves up for one massive performance."

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