Manu Tuilagi picked up a groin injury during practice on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

LONDON – Manu Tuilagi’s long-awaited return to England duty has been put on hold once again after the centre was ruled out of Saturday’s international against South Africa at Twickenham with a minor groin strain.

Tuilagi, who had been named on the bench, suffered the injury during training on Thursday.

It was announced on Friday that he had been withdrawn from England coach Eddie Jones’ match-day 23.

Sale wing Chris Ashton will now fill the vacancy on the bench created by Tuilagi’s absence.

Leicester powerhouse midfielder Tuilagi last played for England in 2016, with the 27-year-old’s career for club and country interrupted by a series of groin, knee and hamstring injuries during the intervening two years.

England, however, were confident that Tuilagi, capped 26 times by the Red Roses, would be fit for next weekend’s home clash with world champions New Zealand.

“Manu picked up a very minor strain to his groin yesterday (Thursday) during training,” England scrum coach Neal Hatley told reporters at Twickenham on Friday. “We are expecting him to be right for New Zealand week.

“If tomorrow was a World Cup final, then we probably would have kept him in,” he added.

It was against New Zealand that the Samoa-born Tuilagi had arguably his best match in England colours, scoring a try as he ran riot during a 38-21 win over the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012.

Ashton’s call-up leaves him on the brink of ending a four-year England exile.

The wing, who will win his 40th cap if he comes off the bench on Saturday, fell out of favour with several England coaches despite an impressive haul of 19 tries in 39 Tests, while his chances of an international recall were hampered by a succession of long-term bans.

Ashton also effectively made himself unavailable for England duty by spending a season at Toulon, but returned from the French giants to sign for Sale, near Manchester, before the start of the current Premiership season. 

“It’s brilliant for Chris Ashton, who made the decision to come back from Toulon, where life was very comfortable for him,” said Hatley. “To bring someone like him back in is brilliant.”