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If it was unclear just how important Manu Tuilagi is to England’s Rugby World Cup assault, then Sunday’s double-try salvo made it crystal clear.
The centre, so often lauded as unplayable when he is at his very best, proved to be England’s gamechanger against Tonga as his two scores in the first half allowed his side to pull away from the Pacific Islanders and ensure that there would be no early derailment.
His all-round performance was perhaps the greatest sign of his worth to this team, given not even the hugely physical Tongan defence could stop him.
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It may just be the case that Tonga proved the creators of their own downfall, at least where Tuilagi is concerned. He may not be of Tongan heritage – despite what too many pundits were appearing to claim on Sunday evening – but a chance to play against a Polynesian side still meant an awful lot to the 28-year-old, such are his Samoan roots.
And, while the rest of the 35,923 in attendance at the Sapporo Dome watched a terrifying Sipi Tau before kick-off, Tuilagi merely stood there, taking it all in and using that Tongan display of aggression to fuel the fire within him.
“It’s where I’m from,” Tuilagi said of his experience facing the Sipi Tau. “It’s a privilege to stand in front of the Tongan war dance. It was brilliant.
“It definitely fired us all up for that game. It definitely fired me up watching that. It was good to be standing in front of it. It’s an unbelievable experience. I haven’t done that before. I’ve only played Fiji before – where they perform the Cibi – but the first time against Tonga was unreal.”
Sunday’s performance had been a long time coming on the biggest stage, given Tuilagi was forced to miss the 2015 World Cup through injury and ill-discipline. Eight years ago, he made headlines for the right reasons with tries against G
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