MANU TUILAGI admits that Saturday is the day he thought would never arrive.
A World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, a contest which England’s powerhouse centre regards as "the biggest game of our lives".
1 Tuilagi is save hell-raising for the pitch as he eyes World Cup redemptionCredit: Getty
The last two World Cups have seen Tuilagi arrested for jumping off a ferry in Auckland harbour in 2011, then miss out entirely in 2015 after being convicted of assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver.
This time, Tuilagi is determined to do all of his hell-raising on the pitch.
He’s the man the All Blacks will fear most in Yokohama — the man of the match when the world champions were hammered at Twickenham in 2012, England’s only victory over New Zealand in their last 16 attempts.
And while Tuilagi says he will not let excitement overwhelm him, he is not underplaying the significance of this titanic showdown between the top two nations in the world rankings.
Tuilagi, 28, said: “One hundred per cent, I thought this day might never come. This is a dream come true and you’ve got to enjoy every moment of it.
“If you enjoy it, that will allow you to do your job. I’m excited, I know it’s probably the biggest game of our lives.
“It’s tough trying to get in the right place mentally and physically. You’ve just got to get the balance right. Being excited but also clear and controlled.”
Back in 2012, Tuilagi created two tries and scored another in the space of eight extraordinary second-half minutes as England racked up a record 38-21 win over the All Blacks.
Despite his own heroics, Tuilagi believes that triumph was down to an outstanding team display.
And he reckons the same formula is needed against the back-to-back world champions this time around.
Tuilagi said: “That win was down to everyone just doing their job — not doing anything amazing.
“That is exactly what we need to do this weekend, just focus on your own job and do it the best you can. Then the overall performance will take care of itself.
“That doesn’t really give me inspiration for Saturday. It was a good win but it’s not about that day now.”
England scrum-half Ben Youngs believes Tuilagi will be a key man this weekend — driven by a desire to make up for lost time after disciplinary problems and serious injuries.
Youngs said: “Manu’s an infectious character and he is a guy who’s missed a lot of rugby.
“He loves being part of this group. He is exceptional for us. It’s great to see such a talented player participating on the world stage.
“He is going to be a big player for us at the weekend and I am sure, with his mindset, he’ll be looking forward to delivering for the team.”
I was a massive fan. No one played like him. He’s a big legend of the game. He’s the guy you wanted to be. You try… but you don’t succeed.
Manu Tuilagi on Jonah Lomu
Tuilagi grew up in Samoa worshipping the All Blacks — especially the late, great Jonah Lomu — destroyer of England when these teams last met in a World Cup semi-final in 1995.
He said: “You always watch the All Blacks back in Samoa. Big Jonah, I was a massive fan of him. Just the way he played.
"No one played like him. He’s a big legend of the game. He’s the guy you wanted to be. You try… but you don’t succeed.”
Far from being intimidated by the New Zealand Haka — the traditional pre-match Maori war dance — Tuilagi laps it up.
He said: “It’s an honour to stand there in front of the Haka and accept the challenge. You respect it.
"For me, we grew up watching it on TV, so to finally stand in front of it — it’s amazing.”
Tuilagi insists England must match the All Blacks for physicality if they are to have any chance of victory.
He said: “They’re a very physical team and we’ve got to match that and try to stop them.
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“If they get on top of you, it’s very hard to stop their attack. We’ve got a massive job to do on that front.
“But this group of players is probably the tightest an England squad has ever been. We know just how important the game is — but we don’t want to let that overwhelm us.
“We’ve got a game plan, we’ve got to be clear on it. We are going up against the best in the world and this really is do or die.”