England head coach Eddie Jones has thrown down the gauntlet to Manu Tuilagi and urged the robust centre to prove he is worthy of a place in his matchday squad for the likely Six Nations title decider against Wales later this month.
Tuilagi moved a step closer to reprising his international career after being summoned by Jones to join England’s training camp as preparations for their championship tussle with Warren Gatland’s side at Twickenham on 12 March intensify.
The 24-year-old is set to rival Owen Farrell for the No12 jersey. Farrell has started all three of England’s Six Nations victories at inside centre, although Jones has compared Tuilagi’s physicality and potential influence to that of All Blacks powerhouse Ma’a Nonu.
“He starts from a good situation and it depends how hard he works on his game and how desperate he is to play for England,” said Jones.
“He’s got all the attributes to be an outstanding 12. If you look at it on pure athleticism, Manu is not far behind Nonu at all.
“He has to keep working on his fitness and he is going to be a valuable player for England. I think 12 is his best position, he can carry the ball off the gain line, he’s got the ability to catch and pass.”
Tuilagi has not played for England since their 2014 tour of New Zealand and missed last year’s World Cup through a combination of a long-term groin injury and suspension, having been convicted of assault and criminal damage.
The Samoa-born centre navigated 80 minutes for Leicester during their 47-20 victory over London Irish on Sunday, although Tigers’ director of rugby Richard Cockerill holds reservations over his return to the international fold so soon after injury.
Tuilagi is joined at England’s training camp by Exeter’s back-row forward Dave Ewers, who also returns to Jones’ Elite Player Squad after recovering from injury.
There is no place for fellow centre Luther Burrell, who was called into England’s training camp ahead of their showdown with Ireland as a replacement for the concussed Ollie Devoto. Sale’s back-rower Josh Beaumont remains unavailable due to a shoulder injury.
Full-back Mike Brown, meanwhile, is free to face Wales after escaping a potential citing for kicking Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray during Saturday’s 21-10 victory.
A third successive win left Grand Slam-chasing England, who are without a championship title since 2011, top of the Six Nations standings.