Manu Tuilagi’s hopes of being on this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa have been boosted after it emerged he has an outside chance of making his comeback from injury before Warren Gatland names the squad.
Tuilagi has been sidelined with an achilles injury since September but on Tuesday the Sale director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, delivered the “brilliant” news that the 29-year-old is set to return next month. Gatland names his squad on 6 May meaning the timeframe for Tuilagi to prove his fitness is tight, but his chances would be improved if Sale win Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final in La Rochelle to reach the semi-finals, due to take place on the first weekend of next month.
Gatland has form for selecting players not at full fitness: in 2017 the captain, Sam Warburton, was already ruled out for the rest of the domestic season when he named his Lions squad. But Tuilagi would appear to be a different proposition considering his injury history and the New Zealander, who is set to name a slimmed down 36-man squad, will be eager to see him back in action.
It is understood, however, that Gatland is planning on selecting an official standby list, which could buy him some time over Tuilagi even if he does not feature before 6 May, or give the England centre an opportunity to be called up later in the event of injuries to others. Either way, Gatland will welcome the news Tuilagi is set to feature for Sale this season. “[We’re] saying May now, some time in May,” said Sanderson. “That’s brilliant isn’t it? [We’ll] get him back for some big games for the back end of the season.”
The outlook is worse for Sale’s Springbok second row Lood de Jager, who suffered a broken leg and knee damage in training last week, however. Sanderson revealed De Jager has not given up hope of featuring against the Lions but admitted the lock faces at least two months on the sidelines. “If it’s just down to the clean break it could be six to eight weeks,” he added. “I say my prayers for that but there is something wrong with his knee and his meniscus, a meniscal tear, so that will determine the length of the rehabilitation period for him.”
Meanwhile, South Africa will begin preparations for the Lions series this month with groups of players scheduled to attend “alignment camps”. The world champions have not played a match – or even officially gathered as a squad – since the 2019 World Cup final.