England centre Manu Tuilagi is ready to face the team he followed avidly as a youngster admitting he could never match the achievements of the player he idolised most of all.
Tuilagi will be present in the centres for Saturday’s World Cup semi-final against New Zealand at International Stadium Yokohama as the biggest 80 minutes of the Eddie Jones era looms.
Samoan-born Tuilagi grew up watching the All Blacks and it was Jonah Lomu who really fired his imagination.
For all his own reputation as a tackle-busting three-quarter, Tuilagi insists the New Zealand great was a unique talent.
“You’d always watch the All Blacks back in Samoa. It was Super 12 back in the day,” said Tuilagi. “We watched all the All Blacks players playing in that tournament, so it’s exciting now to be playing against them.
“Big Jonah – I was a massive fan. Just the way he played. No one plays like him. Big legend of the game. I tried to be like him. You try, but you don’t succeed.”
For me, you’ve got to enjoy every moment. This is the big moment. Sometimes you forget, with everything that’s going on, but when you really think about it, this is the dream come true.Manu Tuilagi
New Zealand have not lost a World Cup match for a remarkable 12 years and Jones has labelled them the greatest team in the history of sport.
A third global crown beckons for the strong favourites who booked their semi-final spot with a stunning 46-14 demolition of Ireland, a team England have defeated heavily twice this year.
Tuilagi knows the odds are stacked against his side, but refuses to be overawed by what is coming on Saturday.
“We’re going against the best in the world. They’re a quality team and we’re looking forward to the challenge. It is going to be tough, but these are the games you want to play,” Tuilagi said.
“For me, you’ve got to enjoy every moment. This is the big moment. Sometimes you forget, with everything that’s going on, but when you really think about it, this is the dream come true.
“And because of that you’ve got to enjoy every moment of it. If you enjoy it, that will allow you to do your job.
“We know how important the game is but we don’t want to let that overwhelm us and affect us.
“We’ve got a game plan, we’ve got to be clear on it – emotionally excited but you’ve also got to have the control on the pitch.”