England may have unearthed the dangerous center they have been seeking for so long during their 23-19 World Cup warm-up victory over Wales on Saturday in Samoa-born 20-year-old Manu Tuilagi, who capped a lively debut with a well-taken try.
Tuilagi, who qualified through residency even though four of his brothers have played for Samoa, burst through three tackles early in the second half for the sort of score England’s midfield has struggled to find since Will Greenwood retired seven years ago.
James Haskell also scored a try and the irrepressible Jonny Wilkinson kicked a penalty, two conversions and two drop-goals as England, playing in their controversial all-black “away kit” completed a hat-trick of World Cup warm-up wins over Wales following their successes of 2003 and 2007.
However, manager Martin Johnson will not be happy to have been outscored three tries to two as their early second-half 20-7 lead was chipped away during a spirited Wales comeback.
He will also be concerned by the fitness of Lewis Moody. The flanker returned to captain the team after missing the Six Nations with a knee injury, but he limped off with another knee ligament strain after an hour on Saturday with his World Cup hopes in the balance.
“We did lots of good bits, we had some opportunities we didn’t take, and made some some mistakes and gave the ball away too much, but we won the game,” Johnson told Sky Sports. “There is plenty to look at on the video. I thought it was pretty intense early on, but that’s good — we need to get the action into our legs.”
George North scored tries at the start and the end, while fellow winger Shane Williams also finished a well-made move for Wales, who dominated possession in the second half.
There was bad news for the visitors, though, as back Morgan Stoddart suffered a broken leg that ends his hopes of going to New Zealand next month, while flyhalf Stephen Jones, who had been set to become his country’s most-capped player, missed out on his 101st when he strained a calf in the warm-up.
“I’m pretty happy with that performance — we outscored them three tries to two and there are some things we can build on,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “We just need to be a bit more accurate next week.”
His side scored the first try, well-constructed for North to finish, but England came back well when Haskell peeled off a charging scrum. Wilkinson converted, then added a drop-goal to secure a 13-7 halftime lead.
England stretched it to 20-7 four minutes after the restart when Wilkinson popped a pass into the arms of the eager Tuilagi, who burst through in the style shown so often by his brothers to score under the posts.
The crowd loved it and even Johnson allowed himself a wry smile as the player with just one full season of senior rugby under his belt celebrated in style.
As well as his try, Tuilagi showed some of the fleet-footed movement and big hits that are giving him not only a chance of making the World Cup squad, but also forcing his way into the first-choice XV, where England’s regular center pairing of Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape have been criticized for lacking a cutting edge.
“I loved every minute of it,” said Tuilagi, who went off after an hour to a great ovation.
Wales hit back well when Williams finished off another long spell of pressure in the right corner, then captain Sam Warburton was denied another score by a tight TV replay call, before setting up North for his second after Wilkinson had kept things moving with another drop-goal, this time off his right foot.