TOKYO (Reuters) - Everyone playing in Saturday’s World Cup final will no doubt have a brief moment to take it all in, but for Manu Tuilagi and Anthony Watson it might feel just that bit more special after both have come through injuries that threatened their careers.
Tuilagi barely featured for three years before this year’s Six Nations as a succession of complex groin injuries and failed comebacks kept him very much on the periphery of the Eddie Jones revolution.
Watson was a key part of it, a starter in all three British and Irish Lions tests in New Zealand in 2017 and a nailed on member of England’s back three. Then he suffered a serious ankle tendon injury and subsequent Achilles complications that kept him out of the international game for over a year.
Tuilagi, finally played himself back into form and fitness in the Six Nations but Watson cut things a bit finer, playing his first game for England in a year in the August warm-ups.
Both are now back to their sparkling best - Tuilagi bringing awesome power to the midfield and Watson a fleet-footed, impossible-to-hold evasiveness on the wing.
When the final whistle sounded in England’s scintillating semi-final victory, Watson was in tears - and it was Tuilagi he headed for first.
“I’ve tried lying and saying that my eye was bleeding but not too many people believed me,” Watson told a news conference on Thursday.
“After the 13 months that I’ve had - this time last year I couldn’t lift my heel off the floor, I could barely walk without a limp, so I was very appreciative for the moment that I had there and then.
“It was actually quite ironic that the one person who knew why I was particularly emotional in that moment was Manu, who has been through exactly the same, if not worse, situations and it was very comforting.”
Tuilagi, who was fined for jumping off a ferry after England’s 2011 World Cup exit and then dropped from the 2015 squad after being convicted of assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver, was also delighted to be back.
“It’s the same, I feel very blessed to be here and to be able to get this opportunity to play in another World Cup,” he said. “To be here now, the opportunity to get involved in the final, it was beyond my dreams.”
Watson, one of the most athletic and graceful players in the game, said he had “two or three very dark days”. “I was considering whether I’d ever again be able to run at the same speed, change direction,” he said.
“Those days were very tough. I was lucky that I had a very strong support group of friends and family around me. Kyle Sinckler is someone who I spoke to regularly about my mindset throughout the injury and he helped me loads.
“I’m very appreciative of the position we’re in this week but the reflection-type stuff will happen after the final whistle and it won’t make sense unless we get the win.”
Editing by Toby Davis