Rampaging Manu Tuilagi hints at past glories with two-try show for England against Tonga
Outside centre looking back to his blockbusting best as Eddie Jones' side battle to a bruising 35-3 victory in their World Cup opener
For one of the players of Polynesian origin in England’s team, a Rugby World Cup opener against Tonga was always going to be a big deal.
And yet it turned out to be the other one in their line-up who stole the show, and all five points, for England.
Manusamoa Tuilagi showed he is back to somewhere near his blockbusting best as he scored two tries in a 35-3, bonus-point win in a brutal encounter in Sapporo.
All of which rather overshadowed the other major plotline at the start of England’s campaign.
Billy Vunipola was going back to his roots in this fixture. The No 8 was playing his 46th Test for England.
Poignantly, it was the first he has played against Tonga, the country that his father, Fe’ao, had represented in 34 Test matches.
That included captaining them against England in the 1999 World Cup. Billy Vunipola was just six back then. His memories of going to Twickenham to watch his dad include being forced by his mother to hold hands with his brother Mako, so as not to get lost among the throng.
These days, of course, he can more than handle himself. Which is lucky, especially when playing against a Tonga side with a preference for bone-shuddering collisions.
The challenge was laid down before kick off by the Sipi Tau, which was quite the most fearsome of the ritual war dances seen so far in this tournament.
That is ceremonial. The violent hit on Vunipola in the 12th minute was anything but.
Against most teams, Vunipola on the charge is as good as guaranteed to make yardage for England.
So when he took possession and bounded towards the gainline, everyone assumed usual service was about to be delivered.
That factored against Zane Kapeli. The flanker made a hit that sent the 130kg forward flying back at the same force with which he arrived.
The collision was so huge it prompted an audible gasp from the crowd, left Vunipola dazed, and even left the tackler himself needing treatment.
When Vunipola himself saw the reply on the big screen, the rueful grin on his face seemed to suggest he was thinking: “Fair play, that doesn’t happen very often.”
Historically, the backs might have seen the incident and shrunk. Instead, England’s outside centre Tuilagi appeared to take it as a call to arms.
Minutes later, he chased a kick down the touchline. Just as Tane Takulua, Tonga’s scrum-half, was affecting the catch, he was levelled by a colossal tackle by Tuilagi.
It was clear from that hit that Tuilagi was warming to the task, which was good news for England.
Shortly after, his impact all but decided the match, by way of three key interventions within the space of eight minutes.
First, his powerful surge broke the Tongan defensive line to create a chance for Sam Underhill. The England flanker was held up on the tryline, but England still came away with points.
Then Tuilagi bundled his way over for England’s first try, before he added a second when he supported a break by Jonny May down the left flank.
As he ran the ball over the tryline, Tuilagi appeared almost put out that there was no contact coming from the Tongans this time.
That try gave England a lead of 15-3, from which Tonga could not recover.
It will be of concern for England that they hardly did, either, as increasingly scrappy handling meant they were some way short of their best for the remainder.
If the win was not vintage, they can at least point to the one glowing positive – namely the form of Tuilagi.
It is seven years now since he memorably destroyed New Zealand at Twickenham, as the central figure in England’s largest win over the All Blacks.
Injury and indiscipline mean he has seldom touched those heights since, but this display against Tonga might lead England supporters to feel they are about to see the best of him again.
Updated: September 22, 2019 07:05 PM