Perhaps more than any other player, Elliot Daly personifies the selection difficulty facing Steve Borthwick; a quandary that will come under severe scrutiny as England round out the Six Nations with three tough games.
On the one hand, the 31-year-old brings continuity from the World Cup and the impressive experience of 66 caps as well as five Test appearances over two tours with the British and Irish Lions.
England have hit a rough patch in the first two rounds of this season’s Six Nations. And in the absence of Courtney Lawes and Owen Farrell, they will need others to deliver messages and discuss situations. Daly is not named vice-captain – Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje and George Ford are all named as Jamie George’s lieutenants – but he appears to be a vocal and assertive communicator.
He also crossed in Rome to score England’s first try of the Championship and set up their latest five-pointer this weekend by landing a diving pass and flicking the ball to Fraser Dingwall. All told, Daly was responsible for three of his team’s eight line breaks during the tournament so far. Having improved aerial exchanges, especially on the run, he is extremely useful for a team that prioritizes the finish. Of the 1,745 meters of kicking that England have accumulated against Italy and Great Britain, Daly has started 167.
Now for the shadow. Although he has pushed in to close down space at times, making two dominant tackles, according to Stats Perform, it would not be unfair to suggest that Daly appears to be learning the position as part of of the Felix Jones defense system. Tommy Freeman, on the other hand, looks a little more agile.
Then one minute on Saturday, early in the second half as the hosts were pushing to reduce Wales’ lead 14-5, included why many England fans chose someone else on the left wing. Deep in the opposition 22, after a relatively quick ruck that generated Will Stuart’s rumble, George Ford sensed space outside. He fed Dingwall, who sent Daly pushing outside Josh Adams only to beat Cameron Winnett’s cover.
In truth, although the noise of a crowd of hope at home increased, it was not worth trying. Winnett struck out and stopped Daly before Adams covered across to strand the runner:
Contrast the denial of that move with James Lowe’s powerful finish against Italy the following evening…
…or the many occasions that Duhan van der Merwe got up in the field and barreled through bodies on the way to the try line.
Daly now has 19 tries. That said, the past three have been against Italy and the one before that, as far back as November 2020, was a 40-0 thumping against Georgia. No problem, but do England need a more explosive athlete wearing the number 11 to trouble elite defences, exploit broken field situations and score more consistently in the fives and seventies? The question is fair. And the limitation Will Muir of Bath fits that profile as a left-wing expert. Affectionately known as ‘The Horse’, he was brought into the England squad ahead of the tournament – and ahead of clubhouse Joe Cokanasiga – after Oscar Beard suffered concussion on Harlequins duty. Other tears, such as Ollie Sleightholme, will surely be tested in the A game against Portugal.
While stalwarts like Ethan Roots, Chandler Cunningham-South and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso have been backed up, Borthwick has done so with considerable Test know-how in cocooning these new faces. For that reason, it would be a leap for England to have Feyi-Waboso, Freeman and another newcomer as a back-three option in the same game-day 23. Moreover, if Freddie Steward is not transferred from full-back in order to integrate George Furbank, Daly’s distribution will be more valuable. Borthwick will look to bring in Ollie Lawrence or Manu Tuilagi to anchor the midfield at Murrayfield alongside Henry Slade.
Dingwall’s lead could have been an accident, and his try against Wales showed how Daly’s other attributes balance the backline. You can see Ford urging Daly to move around the ruck and into a deeper slot on the other side as the Englishman faces the puck:
The connection between these two things is messy, but Daly does enough to convert the overlap:
Although he is imperious in the air and increasingly quick with his positioning, as well as a carving carrier and important kicking outlet, Steward still does not organize the shape of the step or find width from the second receiver. If he did, Borthwick might be inclined to opt for out-and-out dynamism on the wings. As it is, Daly continues to fill a number of full-back roles for England, which means he has started 31 Tests there.
It does not sit right to declare Daly a victim of his own versatility, mainly because of what he has achieved but also because of his ability to reinvent himself. At outside centre, widely accepted as his preferred position, Daly has started just four Tests. As Slade points out, Felix Jones wants plenty of line-speed from that role. With that in mind, and with Borthwick wanting Joe Marchant to return to the Premier League, Daly may not stray from the back three for the rest of his international career.
As for the kick-and-press game plan deployed by England in the World Cup semi-final against South Africa, it was close to lacking. Do you remember his tackle on Duane Vermeulen? It wouldn’t be a shock if Borthwick follows a similar template in trying to push Scotland.
Eddie Jones used to talk about “core” players who lubricate the progression of World Cup cycles, ensuring a team stays motivated, before being eased out when youngsters are ready. Great examples were Chris Robshaw and Dylan Hartley, who were central to England between 2016 and 2018. There are a number of such candidates in England’s top flight at the moment; especially Joe Marler and Dan Cole.
There is a good chance that Daly will end up as someone else. Then again, his assets suit the number 23 shirt too. His ingenuity should not be underestimated.