It’s been a pleasure – Ollie Lawrence relishes playing with ‘hero’ Manu Tuilagi

Ollie Lawrence finished Saturday’s agonising defeat by France alongside boyhood idol Manu Tuilagi in what was a symbolic moment for England’s midfield.

Lawrence produced a coming-of-age performance in the 33-31 defeat at Groupama Stadium, crossing either side of half-time in an impressive display of power running that was a continuation of his stellar form for Bath.

It was evidence that the 24-year-old centre is ready to provide the ball-carrying might that has been Tuilagi’s calling card since making his debut in 2011.

England’s Ollie Lawrence celebrates scoring
England’s Ollie Lawrence celebrates scoring in Lyon (Andrew Matthews/PA)

England have longed to find a defence-smashing alternative to Tuilagi during his regular spells out through injury and in Lyon they finally witnessed a passing of the baton, with the 32-year-old veteran almost certainly playing his final Test before joining a French club next season.

Eddie Jones drew a comparison between the punch they offer in attack in 2021 and, after the similarities were made clear in a riveting climax to the Guinness Six Nations that saw Tuilagi step off the bench for the final 21 minutes, Lawrence paid tribute to a unique team-mate.

“Manu’s been class. You ask anyone in the squad, he’s one of the best people around,” Lawrence said.

“He was my hero growing up, he was someone I looked up to and tried to emulate my game around.

“The way he was playing at a young age in an England shirt was amazing. To keep going playing at this level is testament to him really.

“To have the pleasure to take the field with him on the amount of occasions I have now is special and a memory I will look back on.

England’s Manu Tuilagi come on as a substitute
England’s Manu Tuilagi came on as a substitute against France (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“Who knows what is going to happen in the future, but it has been a pleasure playing with Manu. He’s a great bloke on and off the field.”

Lawrence missed the opening two rounds with a hip injury and the current Gallagher Premiership player of the season has grown in influence since making his comeback in a dispiriting defeat by Scotland.

Now 24 caps into his international career, he is proving that his marauding club form translates to the highest level.

“Test rugby is very different to Premiership rugby in a lot of aspects. You get fewer opportunities and have to be more decisive with them. That was one thing I was focussed on this Six Nations,” he said.

“Coming out of the injury, I didn’t want to use that as an excuse, I just wanted to get in there and offer my bit to the team.

“I’ve managed to progress my game to a level where I am confident I can keep pushing to see where I can take it.”

England finished only third in the table but having inflicted Ireland’s solitary defeat and dazzled against France, who triumphed through a final-minute Thomas Ramos penalty, clear progress was made.

“It was a massive step forward for us as a team. Throughout this tournament we’ve progressed nicely. It was unfortunate that we didn’t get over the line,” Lawrence said.

“We fell short and that’s definitely something we’ll keep working on, but it’s really exciting being part of this group. We don’t know where we can take it as a team and that’s the exciting part.”