It was hard to know exactly what to make of England's World Cup send-off dinner at Twickenham on Monday; video messages of support from Little Britain's David Walliams – "Come on boys…!" – and a bunch of micro-celebs, music from the ageing nutty boys of Madness.
Even the scheduled grand exit had a slightly surreal edge to it, the scrum coach Graham Rowntree having to retrace his steps after leading several squad members out of the wrong door.
At least it was all in a good cause, with a Henry V-themed print – "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" – signed by the entire team raising £20,000 alone for charity. The squad have contributed to a droll advertisement for their sponsors O2 in which a sleepy England fan is helped from his bed in the early hours of matchday by Lewis Moody, given his breakfast by an oven-gloved Chris Ashton and ushered into his living room, where Martin Johnson is waiting to give him the TV remote control. It is the stuff of dreams or nightmares, depending on your point of view.
For Manu Tuilagi it must all have felt particularly bizarre. In 2003 he was at home in Samoa cheering on his native country against Johnson's England. Even a year ago he was still struggling to nail down a first-team place at Leicester. The squad photo taken this week shows him gazing away from the camera while his other team-mates look straight down the lens, as if he was still attempting to take it all in. When he rang his family to inform them of his selection, he was so excited he forgot it was 4am in the South Pacific: "They were asleep but they were very happy for me."
His next task will be to find enough tickets for the whole extended Tuilagi clan, around 10 of whom are hoping to follow his progress in New Zealand. If he plays with the power and intent he displayed against Wales at Twickenham, Johnson will be struggling for reasons not to pick him to start in New Zealand next month. The 20-year-old may be inexperienced but is already determined to force his way into England's first XV. "Definitely," he says. "You always want to get a start. For me it's about training hard and then hopefully I'll get picked. I just run hard at defenders and try and break them down. It's simple but it's effective."
With only three specialist centres in the 30-man squad, Tuilagi's prospects look increasingly good. He looks set to win his second cap against Ireland in Dublin this Saturday and says he will not be badly afflicted by nerves, either when singing the national anthem – "It's easy isn't it? It's not the longest" – or during the match. "For me it does not really matter. I always get nervous before a game but I like that. If I don't get nervous it feels weird. You need nerves to keep you alert and keep your mind on the game."
Like his brothers Tuilagi is a religious man who prays before matches that God will give him the strength to do his job well. Given the size of him it might seem he needs no extra help but his furious assault on Northampton's Chris Ashton at the end of last season betrayed a less serene side.
The subject remains a sore one but England's management are confident it will prove a one-off. "You move on and look to the future," says Tuilagi.
They will be hoping Ireland do not repeat their storming Six Nations performance in Dublin last March, which abruptly ended English hopes of a grand slam. Rowntree says England's pack are keen to make amends. "That'll be fuelling our fires at the weekend, for sure. What they did to us is in the back of our minds. They brought an intensity to the set piece they hadn't produced in the whole tournament."
Rowntree said the management wanted a victory to atone for their 19-9 defeat to Wales in Cardiff and generate some momentum heading into the World Cup. "We were frustrated with the loss in Wales. You just had to look at the gaffer's face after the game. If we lose it'll put pressure on us that's for sure."
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