Alex Sanderson backs Manu Tuilagi to be picked for Lions tour of South Africa

The England international is pencilled in to return for Sale at the end of May.

Manu Tuilagi suffered an Achilles injury in Sale's match at Northampton in September
Manu Tuilagi suffered an Achilles injury in Sale's match at Northampton in September

Manu Tuilagi remains on course to return for Sale this month and director of rugby Alex Sanderson says if it was down to him, he would select the centre for the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.

Lions coach Warren Gatland is set to name his 36-man squad and captain on Thursday and England international Tuilagi could be included despite being out since September due to an Achilles injury.

“Yeah I would (take him) if I was picking it,” Sanderson said in a Zoom call ahead of Friday’s Gallagher Premiership game with Leicester.

“Manu understands more than most how to come back from an injury because he has had more than most.

“And I think he wants to come back and be brilliant again, I do and that is conversations we’ve had, not in those words, but in so many terms. If I could back anyone to come back and be at their best, I’d back him.”

Sanderson revealed Tuilagi may have been available for the Heineken Champions Cup on May 22 had La Rochelle not knocked Sale out at the quarter-final stage.

The Samoan-born back has not been ruled out of their fixture with Bath next weekend either, but a more realistic target is the visit of Premiership leaders Bristol on May 28.

An appearance against the Bears would potentially give the 29-year-old three regular season games while third-placed Sale are hopeful of making the play-offs, which could give the England international another two matches to prove his fitness before the Lions depart for South Africa.

On Tuilagi’s return, Sanderson added: “All being well and hitting all his markers, some time around the European Cup Final.

“It is a shame we are not playing in it because he could be making his (second) debut in that. Some time around that, so two to three weeks.

“What we are guarding against isn’t his Achilles, his Achilles is fine. It’s making sure he doesn’t reinjure himself through a soft tissue.”

Tuilagi, who went with the Lions squad to Australia in 2013, has suffered with hamstring, groin and knee problems in the past and Sanderson still feels it will not take him long to get back up to top speed.

The Sharks director of rugby is cautious about putting the former Leicester Tigers player back into the mix too early, but he has been involved in leadership meetings over the team’s attacking structure with his return in mind.

“It is our job to get him up to game fitness before he plays, that’s why I am very tentative to say when he is coming back and him hitting his marks because I don’t want to throw him in there at 80 per cent, he will reinjure,” Sanderson said of Tuilagi, who recently signed a new two-year deal at Sale.

“I can only talk for myself, I can’t talk for the legend that is Warren Gatland’s perspective, but it is not a leap of faith for us to sign him again, it is a calculated risk and a good one.

“I have no doubt he will get back to playing his best rugby. He is very happy here, very motivated and a very good player. You get those three things together and you end up finding form.

“I think he will find form, whether or not Warren wants to take Manu Tuilagi with the Lions, that is his choice.”

Sanderson has not spoken with Gatland about the return of the Sale man, but with centre rival George North ruled out last month, Tuilagi will hope to be included in Thursday’s 36-man list.

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