Perhaps more than any other player, Elliot Daly personifies the selection issues facing Steve Borthwick; a dilemma that will come under fierce criticism as England close the Six Nations with three tough games.
On the one hand, the 31-year-old offers World Cup continuity and the considerable experience of 66 caps and five Test appearances during two tours with the British and Irish Lions.
England found themselves in tough situations during the first two rounds of this season’s Six Nations. And in the absence of Courtney Lawes and Owen Farrell, they will have needed others to deliver messages and talk through scenarios. Daly is not a designated vice-captain – Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje and George Ford have all been named as Jamie George’s lieutenants – but still appears to be a vocal and assertive communicator.
He also passed Rome to score England’s first Championship try and set up their latest five-pointer this weekend by picking a dip pass and handing the ball to Fraser Dingwall. All told, Daly has been responsible for three of his side’s eight line breaks in the tournament so far. Because he has improved in aerial exchanges, especially during the chase, he is extremely useful for a team that prioritizes territory. Of the 1,745 kick meters that England collected against Italy and Wales, Daly has 167 to his name.
Now for the shade. Although he has at times pushed to close down the space and complete two dominant tackles, according to Stats Perform it would not be unfair to suggest that Daly appears to be learning on the job as part of Felix Jones’ defensive system. Tommy Freeman, on the other flank, looked a little more agile.
A moment on Saturday, early in the second half, as the home side struggled to reduce Wales’ 14-5 lead, summed up why many England fans chose someone else on the left wing. Deep in the opposition 22, after a fairly quick ruck caused by Will Stuart’s rumble, George Ford sensed space wide. He fed Dingwall, who sent Daly to Josh Adams with only a covering Cameron Winnett to beat.
Although the sound of the hopeful home crowd swelled, in reality an attempt felt unlikely. Winnett dipped and stopped Daly before Adams crossed to put the runner in touch:
Compare the disappointing denouement of that move with James Lowe’s powerful finish against Italy the following afternoon…
…or the countless times Duhan van der Merwe charged into the field and shot through bodies on his way to the try-line.
Daly now has 19 test attempts. That said, the last three have come against Italy and the previous one, in November 2020, was a 40-0 defeat to Georgia. He’s no slouch, but do England need a more explosive athlete wearing number 11 to trouble elite defenses, take advantage of broken-field situations and score more consistently in fives and sevens? The question is justified. And the appealing Will Muir from Bath fits that profile as a specialist left wing. Affectionately known as ‘The Horse’, he was named in the England squad ahead of the tournament (and ahead of clubmate Joe Cokanasiga) after Oscar Beard suffered a concussion while on Harlequin duty. Other tearjerkers, such as Ollie Sleightholme, will certainly be examined in the first-team match against Portugal.
While go-getters like Ethan Roots, Chandler Cunningham-South and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso have been backed, Borthwick has done so with considerable Test know-how surrounding these newer faces. For that reason, it would be a leap for England to have Feyi-Waboso, Freeman And another newcomer as back-three options on the same matchday 23. Besides, unless Freddie Steward is shifted from full-back to integrate George Furbank, Daly’s distribution will become more valuable. Borthwick will consider using Ollie Lawrence or Manu Tuilagi to strengthen the midfield at Murrayfield alongside Henry Slade.
Dingwall could end up as the unlucky cheat, and his try against Wales showed how another of Daly’s qualities balances the backline. You can see Ford urging Daly to move around the ruck and into a deeper slot on the near side as the England forward punches away:
The link between these two is sloppy, but Daly does enough to reverse the overlap:
Although undeniably imperious in the air and becoming increasingly clever with his positioning, as well as being a carving carrier and an important outlet, Steward is not yet sorting out phase shape or finding width from the second receiver. If he did, Borthwick would be inclined to opt for pure dynamism on the wings. As it is, Daly still fills some full-back roles for England, which makes sense considering he has started 31 Tests there.
It is wrong to call Daly a victim of his own versatility, primarily because of how much he has achieved, but also because of his ability to reinvent himself. Away from centre, which was widely accepted as his favored position, Daly has started just four Tests. As Slade demonstrates, Felix Jones wants a lot of line speed from that role. With that in mind, and given how Borthwick wants Joe Marchant to return to the Premier League, Daly may not stray from the back three for the rest of his international career.
In terms of the kick-pressing game plan that England employed in the World Cup semi-final against South Africa, he was almost flawless. Remember his tackle on Duane Vermeulen? It wouldn’t be a shock if Borthwick relied on a similar template in his bid to put pressure on Scotland.
Eddie Jones used to talk about ‘fundamental’ players who lubricate the progression of World Cup cycles and ensure a team maintains momentum before being dropped when young pretenders are ready. Chris Robshaw and Dylan Hartley, who played integrally for England between 2016 and 2018, were good examples of this. England’s current crop includes some such candidates; specifically Joe Marler and Dan Cole.
Daly could end up like someone else. On the other hand, his assets also match the number 23 shirt. His ingenuity should not be underestimated.