With the news confirmed today that Leicester Tigers have officially let go of their world class outside centre Manu Tuilagi, the question of whether he will make his new team, Sale Sharks, potential champions beckons. Sale already have the destructive and young Rohan Janse van Rensburg featuring regularly, and they are accustomed to utilising his abilities.
Attacking with van Rensburg
Sale tend to use van Rensburg running a line off the first receiver following a set piece, with both Byron McGuigan and Luke James stood wide and flat in front of the highlighted space, showing this intention. van Rensburg is set to take a late and flat ball off of the first receiver, Sam James, and attack the space between the opposing fly-half and inside centre.
van Rensburg attacks the gap from the late pass, whilst the Harlequins defenders are distracted by the looping Sale fly-half Robert du Preez and winger Marland Yarde entering the marked space. This means that the angle van Rensburg is running at counters the attempted drift defence, which allows him to break through and ultimately score a try.
The impact of van Rensburg can also be seen in open play from a similar setup by Sale Sharks.
Here we can see van Rensburg taking a late inside ball off du Preez once again, countering the lateral direction of the defensive line.
The highlighted du Preez has been tackled by the defender, showing how late the pass is, drawing the tackler in and giving van Rensburg space. Whilst both of these examples show Sale’s destructive centre putting intricate disguises in place, allowing for a late pass to put van Rensburg into a big gap, they do also come across as somewhat one dimensional.
In both of the previous examples shown, teammates outside of van Rensburg’s channel are often disconnected from the rest of their team, and just waiting to jog to the try line. This narrow nature of Sale’s attack could therefore be aided in their new destructive outside centre, Manu Tuilagi.
Attacking with Tuilagi
Whilst the name Manu Tuilagi is often synonymous with bulldozer-like runs through the centre of the pitch, there is another aspect of his attacking game that is just as damaging, and it doesn’t even require him touching the ball.
When operating in the wider channels, Tuilagi is more likely to encounter one on one situations that he will likely dominate with the ball in hand, and therefore commands a lot more attention than the typical attacker. Here, we can see Exeter winger Jack Nowell’s eyes fixed on the ball handler, so he can time his hit on England teammate Tuilagi to perfection, stopping him before he gathers momentum. This is because the supporting defender wouldn’t be able to stop Tuilagi in time if he received the ball and Nowell simply drifted.
However, Tuilagi was simply playing the role of a decoy here, meaning that a simple miss pass to Jordan Olowofela has created a large amount of space behind the Chiefs’ defensive line in the wide channels.
Another example of Tuilagi’s dummy runs creating space out wide can be seen here, when attacking the Chiefs’ own try line. Leicester Tigers fly-half George Ford is aiming to pull the ball backwards, whilst Tuilagi aims to run a dummy line through the gap in the opposing defence.
The highlighted Chiefs defender shows the damage done by Tuilagi’s off the ball work, as he now has considerable ground to make up on Tigers full-back Telusa Veainu, which ends up being in vain as Veainu has plenty of time to launch a cross field kick into the hands of the try scorer, winger Jonny May.
As we have seen, the worries about the success of Sale Sharks with Tuilagi could be down to a risk of a culture clash in the centres. However, despite Tuilagi’s impact exceeding what he can do with the ball in hand, there are still some key issues.
Distribution abilities will be somewhat scarce if both van Rensburg and Tuilagi opt to play together. To help this, Sale may look to bring du Preez in at 12 or James at 13, to accompany one wrecking ball at a time. There may also be a feeling of regret in letting the young Cameron Redpath go to Bath for Sharks’ Director of Rugby Steve Diamond and his men. Teams will also look to expose the agility of both bullish centres in defence, as they aim for the outside shoulder of Tuilagi; an act that comes with some punishment if executed incorrectly.
Overall, Sale have shown they have the ability to utilise a big ball carrier in the backs with great skill, and Manu Tuilagi has shown his understanding of the game in helping his ball carriers work the ball around the park. It’s hard to see a future where the Sharks’ wingers (and leading try scorers) Yarde and McGuigan don’t profit greatly from this addition, but the balance of including playmakers, and the variety of tactics to reach them, will be the battle Steve Diamond now faces.