The most troubling thoughts to occupy Stuart Lancaster’s mind this week would probably not have been on how to beat the All Blacks - a team who have been defeated once in two years.

Nor would it have been on the selection dilemma he faces this week after a stale second half display against Argentina left many asleep in their chairs.

Instead, it would have focused on the news that Manu Tuilagi, England’s dynamic outside-centre, is very likely to miss next year’s Six Nations after undergoing a chest operation.

Tuilagi has become just one of a number of Lions to have fallen foul of injury at the start of this season after he tore a pectoral in September.

The news that he will be forced to miss all of both the autumn internationals and the Six Nations is a bitter blow for both club and country. His absence, you feel, will be most sorely felt on the international stage.

He is a key loss for England. Just how key and important he is has become made even clearer by England’s performances this autumn.

Two wins against Australia and Argentina is nothing to be sniffed at. England’s displays, however, have left much to the imagination.

They needed elements of luck to overcome an Australian side bereft of confidence and victories (their win over Italy last weekend was only their fourth this year), and were outclassed for nearly 40 minutes by a very below-average Argentinian team.

Many of England’s failings this autumn have stemmed from the back-line, who have looked low on imagination and class.

Much of the criticism has been directed in Chris Ashton’s direction, simply for the reason that the winger has done nothing to criticise those who believe that he has not merited his England berth for a year.

However, in many respects, Ashton’s criticism has been nothing more than a cover for the main reason for England’s lack-lustre backs. Tuilagi’s absence has been the key.

Unlike Billy Twelvetrees and Joel Tomkins, who for all his endeavours, looks nothing more than Brad Barritt in disguise, Tuilagi brings a dynamism and real gain-line threat to England’s play.

He is the one player in the English back-line who will have opposition coaches fretting over. Tuilagi is, for want of a better phrase, a game changer.

And for all the positives coming out of the current England set-up, he is probably the only world-class ‘game changer’ that Stuart Lancaster has at his disposal.

Whether it is bursting through tackles or providing space for others to exploit, the English team does not look as threatening nor as exciting without him.

Take a look at two of England’s key victories in the past year, against New Zealand and France.

In both games Tuilagi was the man with the most line breaks; the one who threatened the most and, against New Zealand, provided the individual moment of genius that set up Brad Barritt’s try.

When the game is going against England, he is more often than not the one person who can provide the platform for the team.

One of the main reasons for the crucial nature of Tuilagi’s presence is that England are not blessed with strength in depth in the centre.

Unless Tomkins steps up or Lancaster decides to throw either Luther Burrell or Henry Trinder in at the deep end against France in the opening Six Nations match, it is difficult to see where England’s attacking platform or real threat will come from in the tournament.

Without Tuilagi, it is difficult to foresee England being able to overcome both France and Scotland away from home with no real pressure valve in the backs that Tuilagi’s presence brings.

Now this is not a Tuilagi love in; he does have a tendency to disappear a tad too often in games and his handling skills are nothing in comparison to 13s of the Brian O’Driscoll and Will Greenwood ilk.

But there is a reason as to why O’Driscoll was so excited to play with Tuilagi for the Lions this summer.

The big man from Samoa has an extra dimension to his game that resides with both his pace and seemingly super-human power.

They have been lucky this autumn that they have played two teams short of quality and confidence. Without him away from home, England may find that they will struggle come the spring.

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