England’s prospects for a successful autumn have diminished after Manu Tuilagi was ruled out of the entire QBE Series at Twickenham with a groin injury.
Head coach Stuart Lancaster names his 33-man elite player squad today knowing he has been robbed of his main strike weapon for the Tests against New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa and Australia.
The gloomy medical update on Tuilagi was delivered by Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill, who stressed the British and Irish Lions centre will not be rushed back in the hope of playing a reduced role for England next month.
Tuilagi limped off after 15 minutes of Saturday’s 25-18 Champions Cup victory over Ulster with scans revealing a different groin problem to the one that forced him to miss three Aviva Premiership games last month.
A precise timeframe for his return has yet to be finalised, but the damage to his abductor is more severe on this occasion and comes after he sat out most of last season because of chest surgery.
“I’d be very surprised if Manu plays any part in the autumn. He’ll clearly be missing for a few weeks as a minimum,” Cockerill said. “You’d imagine it being four weeks plus before he’s back on the field. He’ll struggle to be involved. It’s not about him playing at the back end of the autumn, it’s about him being fit and making sure he’s 100 per cent so he can come back and do what Manu does.
“The World Cup is a huge thing at the end of next year and he wants to be a part of that.
“At this point we just need to find out exactly what the problem is and find the right treatment.
“Last month his groin was very tight so we rested it, rehabbed it and he was feeling good. He trained properly and there were no issues. But clearly there was something there that there shouldn’t have been and he’s done something else now.”
The news is a hammer blow to England, who have been robbed of their most dangerous player for the entirety of a key part of their 2015 World Cup preparations.
Before injury intervened on Saturday, Tuilagi was a guaranteed starter against New Zealand on November 8 and his absence leaves a gaping hole in the midfield.
The 23-year-old scattered the All Blacks in the first Test of the June tour in Auckland before the failed experiment of playing him on the wing in the second Test reduced his impact.
Luther Burrell, Brad Barritt, Jonathan Joseph and Kyle Eastmond are the centre options available with Billy Twelvetrees a likely omission from the squad to be announced in central London.
Fears over the fitness of Eastmond have eased with Bath describing the rib injury sustained against Glasgow as minor, putting him in contention to face Toulouse on Saturday.
Eastmond’s Bath colleague Semesa Rokoduguni is a contender to take one of the wing spots in the elite player squad, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Stephen Myler are expected to be named as the fly-halves.
England’s pack has a more settled look, despite autumn-excluding injuries to Lions Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft.
Lancaster will name his captain for the autumn with Chris Robshaw set to remain at the helm, despite pressure for his openside spot from James Haskell and Will Fraser.
Wales boss Warren Gatland has told autumn Test selection casualties Adam Jones and James Hook that “the door is not closed” on their international futures.
Despite boasting more than 170 caps between them, Cardiff Blues prop Jones – a triple Six Nations Grand Slam winner – and Gloucester fly-half Hook have not been chosen among a 34-man squad for appointments with Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa next month.
Ospreys prop Nicky Smith is the solitary uncapped player, with Sam Warburton confirmed as captain, while Wales’ France-based players – Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Luke Charteris and Dan Lydiate – also feature.
But 33-year-old Jones and 29-year-old Hook – both British and Irish Lions – find themselves on the outside looking in less than a year before Rugby World Cup 2015.
“It’s important that I think that he (Jones) continues to keep working on his game,” said Gatland whose squad includes six props. “We have had that conversation with him.
“He looks in reasonable shape, physically, and there are other aspects of his game, particularly around the field, that we want him to keep working on and improving.
“Definitely, the door is not closed for Adam Jones or James Hook, going forward.”