Slater welcomes returning Tuilagi
"World-class" Manu Tuilagi has found fitness at the perfect time to bolster Leicester's Aviva Premiership play-offs charge, according to lock Ed Slater.
Samoa-born England centre Tuilagi has been out of action with a pectoral muscle problem since September.
The 22-year-old is fit to start Leicester's Premiership trip to Newcastle Falcons on Sunday, while England coach Stuart Lancaster will not rush him back for the final two rounds of RBS 6 Nations action.
Stand-in Tigers skipper Slater has backed Tuilagi to hit top form without delay, and boost Leicester's bid for a top-four finish.
"Manu is a huge part of the squad," Slater told the Leicester Mercury.
"He is a world-class player and with him back to fitness it will boost the rest of the squad at a key time."
Dan Bowden partners Tuilagi in Leicester's midfield, with top try-scorer Vereniki Goneva included on the wing.
Tigers rugby director Richard Cockerill expects Tuilagi to be fresh despite his lengthy lay-off, especially as his chest injury has not stopped him running.
"Manu has been unlucky with the injury and he's just had to be patient," said Cockerill.
But he has been training well, he's been able to do all his running and conditioning while the injury has healed and he's raring to go again."
Tigers full-back Mathew Tait will line up against younger brother and Newcastle counterpart Alex at Kingston Park on Sunday.
The Falcons have handed a debut to rugby league convert Lee Smith, who starts on the left wing, after his switch from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
The 27-year-old won three consecutive Super League Grand Finals and a World Club Challenge at Leeds Rhinos, scoring seven tries in eight games for England.
Head coach Peter Russell is confident the cross-code convert is ready for the rigours of the Premiership.
"He's played a bit of union before and you could tell that straight away in training, in terms of the rucks and those sorts of things," Russell told Press Association Sport.
"So that's stood him in good stead and he has settled very quickly.
"He's a real talent and we're all excited about seeing what he can do now.
"It's never an easy conversion, but his work ethic is fantastic and that will certainly mark him out.
"He's been the first in and the last off the training ground, just trying to pick up as many different tips as he can.
"But when we go through different things in analysis he catches on very quickly, knows exactly why we're doing certain things, and that's all been crucial to him getting to grips with the changes."
Newcastle have made six changes from the side that grabbed a losing bonus point against Northampton last weekend.
Mike Blair and Phil Godman link up as half-backs, with Adam Powell replacing the injured Jamie Helleur at centre.
Scott Lawson returns at hooker after helping Scotland edge past Italy 21-20 in Rome in Six Nations action last weekend.