England’s midfield wrecking ball Manu Tuilagi is targeting a return to rugby in Leicester Tigers’ opening European Rugby Champions Cup clash with Ulster at Welford Road on Saturday, October 18. The 23-year-old has been struggling with a groin injury this season and has missed the last three games - all lost by the Tigers against Bath, London Irish and Gloucester.
But Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill announced at the Aviva Premiership clubs’ launch of the European Rugby Champions Cup at Twickenham Stoop that the 25 times capped British & Irish Lions star is set to give his injury ravaged side a considerable boost by returning next week.
“You’ve just got to put guys out there when they’re right. You have to do the right thing by the player,” said Cockerill, who has been operating with a squad that has at times been missing up to 21 players.
“We hope to get Manu back on the field for the Ulster game. And you’d like to think that some of those other midfielders, certainly at No12, will get back on their feet.
“Every time we get a body back it’s a boost for the team. What you underestimate sometimes is that when the opposition see your team list, and you’ve got 15 guys missing, it encourages them even more.
“When you put a full side out and a full bench, suddenly psychologically it looks a bit harder.”
Fellow England centre Anthony Allen has also been missing, while other England caps, Matthew Tait and Ed Slater, have also been among the injuries this season. Tigers warm-up for their home clash with Ulster, who twice beat them in the pool stages in Europe last season, with a game against Harlequins at Welford Road.
“We certainly know how difficult it will be against Ulster next week. We’ve struggled to get past them in the last few years in Europe,” said Cockerill.
“Last year we were 10 points up with 20 minutes to go and we managed to lose by three and that cost us a home quarter-final. They’ve had some coaching and personnel changes over the summer, but Ulster are Ulster, just like Leicester are Leicester — on the big day, you know they’ll come up with the goods.
“We’ve got them first up at Welford Road and, clearly, we’ve not been in the best of form and we’ll need to make sure we’re right on it. For those big European days at Welford Road, we need to make sure we bring it and we’ll certainly need to bring it a week on Saturday.”
Club captain Slater, who will miss the entire pool programme, believes the advent of the European Rugby Champions Cup can help turn the Tigers’ stuttering season around.
The two-time European champions are heading into this season’s tournament on the back of a worrying slump in form, but Slater hopes a change in emphasis will provide a change in results.
“We’re not used to being in a position where we’ve lost three on the bounce and we are under pressure but I think the Champions Cup can add an extra bite,” said Slater.
“You go to grounds you’re not used to and it might be a competition that allows us to readjust and put a different focus in our minds. Hopefully, Europe can provide a different distraction for the boys and have a positive impact..”