Tuilagi hopes Te'o partnership will be matter of brain as well as brawn


Bagshot (United Kingdom) (AFP)

England centre Manu Tuilagi is confident his new midfield partnership with Ben Te'o will demonstrate the duo's rugby brains as well as their physical threat when they face Italy at Twickenham on Saturday.

The pair, who both have Pacific Islands heritage, will start a Test together for the first time as England look to revive their Six Nations campaign after a 21-13 defeat by Wales in Cardiff last time out.

England coach Eddie Jones has dropped Henry Slade to the bench, with Tuilagi moved to outside centre to accommodate the return of Te'o.

One of the more eye-catching statistics about England's new midfield duo is their combined weight of 34 stone (216 kg).

But a modest Tuilagi praised his new partner's ball-handling ability.

"I think Benny can play a bit as well so he'll vary that," said Tuilagi.

"I think playing Italy, they are unpredictable, so we'll have to mix our game up a little bit and having Benny at 12 will allow us to do that."

Tuilagi's on-field exploits in an injury-plagued career have largely been characterised in terms of the 27-year-old's pace and power.

- 'Play to your strengths' -

The same has often been true of Te'o but Tuilagi, asked by AFP if he felt aggrieved by such comments replied: "Not really. That's what we bring to the game and sometimes you've got to play to your strengths.

"Of course we can play, we can pass, but we don't really do that very often. Sometimes you put the players that can play in the right position and with us, it's more direct.

"But if you put everyone in the right position, then you've just got to focus on your job."

As for whether he relishes the physical challenge of running through a defence, Tuilagi insisted: "It's more about trying to run into space. Obviously, sometimes space closes up sometimes and you've just got to close your eyes and hope for the best!"

Meanwhile Tuilagi said the task for all the inside backs, including captain and fly-half Owen Farrell, is to make the most of 18-stone wing Joe Cokanasiga's talents.

"Obviously having Joe back, you've got to give him the ball, so for me and Benny and Faz (Farrell), the guys inside, if we do our job right we'll give Joe some space and all he needs is a little bit of space."

Tuilagi's club future remains uncertain amid speculation the Leicester back could be set for a lucrative move to Paris-based Racing 92 after this year's World Cup in Japan.

But Tuilagi, who made his first Six Nations start in six years in England's tournament-opening win away to champions Ireland last month, insisted his focus was fixed on Italy, who've never beaten England and have lost all of their last 20 matches in the Six Nations.

"It would take a lot more than that to distract me," said Tuilagi. "I've been out of the England set-up for a long time and I'm not going to let anything small like that affect me," he added of a Test career where knee and groin problems have mainly been responsible for the fact has only amassed 31 caps in the eight years since his debut.

"Obviously, at the moment I'm focusing on the Six Nations and finishing well, but you know there's that big decision for me I've got to make, so hopefully get the Six Nations done and then think about that."