LONDON (Reuters) - When Manu Tuilagi jumped off a ferry in Auckland harbour after England had been knocked out of the 2011 World Cup it was seen as the immature act of a boisterous 20-year-old that was dealt with by a fine and a slap on the wrists.
Much as the behaviour of former England footballer, “daft as a brush” Paul Gascoigne, was accepted as schoolboy high jinks, the likeable Tuilagi was given a similarly long leash.
England coach Stuart Lancaster, who took over after the 2011 World Cup with a pledge to clean up the team’s culture, kept things in perspective with a “quiet word” when Tuilagi made a “bunny ears” gesture behind Prime Minister David Cameron two years ago.
However, when he discovered this week that the centre had been convicted for assaulting a police officer in an incident in which he was lucky to escape a prison sentence, there was only going to be one outcome.
Lancaster announced on Friday that the 23-year-old would not be considered for England again until January 2016, ending his hopes of playing in this year’s World Cup, which were already thin after an injury-ravaged year.
Lancaster has continually stressed the need for his players to play and behave in a way to make supporters proud, having been extremely unimpressed by some of the goings-on during the 2011 tournament.
One of his acts was to take the squad away from their usual plush Pennyhill Park Surrey hotel to a junior club in Yorkshire, where he ensured the players were reminded of their responsibilities to the grass roots of the game.
In the three years since, England’s players have bought in to that cultural shift completely and Lancaster has had little need to issue any sanctions.
However, once he discovered the severity of Tuilagi’s offences, there was only going to be one outcome.
“As role models and ambassadors for the game, the highest standards of behaviour are expected from every England player both on and off the field,” he said.
The decision to exclude Tuilagi, whose five brothers have all played test rugby for Samoa, from the World Cup squad was no doubt made easier by the fact that he was looking unlikely to make it anyway after not playing at all since October because of a troublesome groin injury.
That, however, is probably unfair on the England coach, who would almost certainly have done the same thing had Tuilagi been at the peak of his powers and an essential cog in the team’s bid to win the World Cup on home soil.
Editing by Ed Osmond