Elliot Daly's scintillating early-season form keeps him in England reckoning

Elliot Daly of Saracens is tackled by Hanro Liebenberg during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Saracens and Leicester Tigers - GETTY
Elliot Daly of Saracens is tackled by Hanro Liebenberg during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Saracens and Leicester Tigers - GETTY

Such is the way of the Premiership and its clashes with international windows that, as perverse as it seems, players become more valuable when they are overlooked by England. Think of Alex Dombrandt, Danny Care and Marcus Smith when Harlequins landed the title in 2021 or how George Ford steered Leicester Tigers the following season.

Elliot Daly, currently deemed surplus to requirements by Eddie Jones, has started this domestic campaign magnificently. After three matches, Saracens have amassed 16 tries and are averaging just over 40 points per game. Their full-back, who looks revitalised and extremely sharp, has been among their most influential players. Currently, it appears as though Mark McCall might be able to select him all year.

The World Cup is now just 12 months away. Even amid ferocious competition for a spot in England’s squad, do not discount Daly from a comeback.

Eddie Jones has changed his mind before

At full-time of Saracens’ 51-18 destruction of Leicester Tigers, McCall seemed to reveal that Daly had been left out of the Rugby Football Union’s unpublished Elite Player Squad (EPS) as well as the most recent training group.

That might feel like a terminal blow. But then Daly only needs to look around his club dressing room, at Jamie George and the Vunipola brothers, to see players that have survived selection setbacks and periods of England exile.

Daly is 29 and has 57 caps now, which is plenty of experience to allow him to hit the ground running if and when he is reintegrated. However, missing the Australia tour in July gave him a full pre-season schedule – his first since 2015, Daly believes – and the benefits are clear. He looks explosive, pacey and powerful. The finish for Daly’s try on Saturday left Jack van Poortvliet and Freddie Steward flailing.

“He's lost his international place for the first time in a long time,” McCall said of Daly at the weekend. “He's always been part of the squad. Not going on tour and not being selected in the 45-man squad it's not easy for someone like him who has always been there. You saw his response and reaction today and he hasn't given up hope of going to the World Cup.”

Daly is a Swiss Army knife

The nagging worry for versatile players is that they become victims of their own adaptability and either find themselves shifted around teams or excluded altogether in favour of peers regarded as specialists. Daly had a taste of this in the 2022 Six Nations, when he was shoehorned into a centre partnership with Henry Slade that never looked balanced or sufficiently flinty to command the gain-line.

In the right match-day squad, though, Daly provides high quality cover in three positions – outside centre, left wing and full-back. Jones has indicated that Jack Nowell and Tommy Freeman could be as flexible, but only hypothetically. Nowell’s start at outside centre against Japan in 2018 was unsuccessful and Freeman has never started there for Northampton Saints in either the Premiership or Europe.

Elliot Daly takes part in an England Rugby training session - The RFU Collection
Elliot Daly takes part in an England Rugby training session - The RFU Collection

With Daly, there is concrete evidence of effectiveness in various roles and, as McCall said, this “probably gives him a very good chance of going” to the World Cup – not least because he is an ideal man to wear 23 and facilitate a heavy-duty six-two split of forwards on the bench.

Familiarity with Owen Farrell

According to Daly, one of its chief conductors, Saracens’ attack is not too different to last season. The difference is conviction. “When the opportunity is on, we take it and trust each other,” Daly explained on Saturday. “We are just so decisive on the ball at the moment, which is one key thing to our attack.”

The cohesion is palpable, particularly between Owen Farrell and Daly. Ben Earl’s try, the second of seven that Saracens ran past Leicester, was typical of how Farrell and Daly have come to interact as a playmaking axis. The former took a bobbling ball at first-receiver and waited for the latter to circle around him before playing a flat pass that sent Daly between Phil Cokanasiga and Kini Murmurivalu. A week previously, Earl had been in support to cap some similar interplay.

Farrell and Daly were teammates in the England Under-20 side that made the Junior World Championship final and share an innate understanding. Daly offers many tangible attributes – speed, balance, distribution, a booming left boot. The existing chemistry between Farrell and Daly is an intangible aspect that would surely enhance England’s attack, especially if Farrell is used as a fly-half rather than an inside centre alongside Smith or Ford.

“Me and Faz have always had something,” Daly said. “That was half the reason I came to this club to be honest. We have something together where if I ask for the ball he just gives it to me and vice versa. I think we see the game quite similarly which is quite good in terms of pushing our attack forward, to have a lot of people on the same page.

“If you have got people on different pages, it is very hard for the attack to be fluid and for everyone to run onto the ball at the right time, or you are anticipating their decisions, whereas it is kind of just a look between me and Faz, we understand what is going on.”

For the final 12 minutes or so on Saturday, Farrell went off and we saw a glimpse of the backline that Saracens could field during international windows. It still contained Alex Goode, Max Malins, Alex Lozowski, Sean Maitland, Alex Lewington and Daly. There will be little let up.