London – England expect Manu Tuilagi to have one of the toughest matches of his international career when the recalled centre faces France in the Six Nations at Twickenham on Saturday.
Hosts England go into the match bidding for a Grand Slam whereas France are in the highly unusual position of being bottom of the table after back-to-back defeats by Italy and Wales.
However, England coach Stuart Lancaster has made three changes to a winning side, including the recall of powerful Leicester centre Tuilagi to face a French midfield featuring the equally imposing Mathieu Bastareaud and the silky skills of Wesley Fofana.
Tuilagi missed England's opening Six Nations win over Scotland with an ankle injury, a match in which Gloucester's Billy Twelvetrees impressed on his debut after replacing his former Tigers team-mate.
But Tuilagi came off the bench as England ground out a 12-6 win over Ireland at a rainswept Lansdowne Road in Dublin last time out.
Tuilagi's previous England start, the stunning 38-21 victory against world champions New Zealand at Twickenham in December, showed there was more to his game, and that of midfield partner Brad Barritt, than physical threat.
The 21-year-old Tuilagi, the youngest of six Samoa-born brothers, had a hand in all of England's three tries against New Zealand, scoring one and creating the other two.
“The last time he started was against the All Blacks and he had a formidable game,” said England attacking skills coach Mike Catt during a Twickenham news conference on Friday.
“He is one of those players we have in the armoury and hopefully will be using successfully in attack,” the former England utility back added.
“All in all, he fits in with the way we want to play and he is chomping at the bit to set a marker down.”
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has made seven changes to his starting side, as well as moving Fofana off the wing in just one example of a team where, in contrast to earlier rounds, specialists are now in their favoured positions.
Significantly, Morgan Parra Ä regarded by many judges as Europe's best scrum-half Ä is back in the French No 9 shirt.
And the changes to France's back-line impressed Catt, who spent much of his England career playing outside star fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, now with French club Toulon.
“Fofana coming into the centre, playing in his preferred position, he is a formidable force,” said Catt. “He and Bastareaud will make a good partnership.
“Controlling the game at nine and 10 is something crucial at international level and Parra has proved he is an exceptionally talented player when he does those things.”
Meanwhile South Africa-born Catt refused to read too much into France's recent results.
“We lost against Australia and South Africa (in November) and then came in and beat the All Blacks.
“They (France) are in the same position. They are a wounded animal, they are a very proud nation and they enjoy playing against the English.”
England captain Chris Robshaw, endorsed Catt's comments by saying: “Defensively we have to be switched on because the French can play from anywhere and that element of surprise is what they bring.”
Not since their World Cup-winning year of 2003 have England completed a Grand Slam and Catt said Saturday's match promised to be an important staging post for a youthful side whose over-arching aim is to triumph on home soil at the next World Cup in 2015.
“As a team we have grown,” said Catt. “We showed a lot of maturity in that Ireland win. They (France) will probably throw something at us that we haven't experienced before. It is how quickly we adapt to it.
“It is massively exciting and a massive learning step going forward.” – Sapa-AFP