England centre Manu Tuilagi is ready to face the team he followed avidly as a youngster admitting he could never match the achievements of the player he idolised most of all.
Tuilagi will be present in the centres for Saturday’s World Cup semi-final against New Zealand at International Stadium Yokohama as the biggest 80 minutes of the Eddie Jones era looms.
Samoan-born Tuilagi grew up watching the All Blacks and it was Jonah Lomu who really fired his imagination.
For all his own reputation as a tackle-busting threequarter, Tuilagi insists the New Zealand great was a unique talent.
“You’d always watch the All Blacks back in Samoa. It was Super 12 back in the day,” Tuilagi said.
“We watched all the All Blacks players playing in that tournament, so it’s exciting now to be playing against them.
“Big Jonah – I was a massive fan. Just the way he played. No one plays like him. Big legend of the game. I tried to be like him. You try, but you don’t succeed.”
New Zealand have not lost a World Cup match for a remarkable 12 years and Jones has acclaimed them as the greatest team in the history of sport.
A third global crown beckons for the strong favourites who booked their semi-final spot with a stunning 46-14 demolition of Ireland, a team England have defeated heavily twice this year.
Tuilagi knows the odds are stacked against his side, but refuses to be overawed by what is coming on Saturday.
“We’re going against the best in the world. They’re a quality team and we’re looking forward to the challenge. It is going to be tough, but these are the games you want to play,” Tuilagi said.
“For me, you’ve got to enjoy every moment. This is the big moment. Sometimes you forget, with everything that’s going on, but when you really think about it, this is the dream come true.
“And because of that you’ve got to enjoy every moment of it. If you enjoy it, that will allow you to do your job.”
Tuilagi experienced highs and lows against New Zealand before a series of serious injuries struck, disrupting his Test career until this year’s welcome revival.
In 2012 he was part of the side that famously routed the All Blacks 38-21 at Twickenham, but two years later England fell to a 3-0 series whitewash against Steve Hansen’s men.
“Everyone just needs to do their job and not try to do anything amazing,” Tuilagi said.
“In 2012 it was all about each player from one to 23 doing their job as well as they can and that is exactly what we need to do this weekend – just focus on your own job and do it the best you can and then the performance will take care of itself.
“You don’t think about being error free, you just think about doing your job as well as you can.
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“Of course there are going to be some mistakes, but you have to take that and move on to your next job.
“This group of players is probably the tightest this squad has ever been. We’re all rooting for each other. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction.
“We know how important the game is but we don’t want to let that overwhelm us and affect us.
“We’ve got a game plan, we’ve got to be clear on it – emotionally excited but you’ve also got to have the control on the pitch.”