CHRIS FOY: Elliot Daly may have utility value, but he is best employed as a specialist 13 – the British and Irish Lion has an opportunity to remind England of his running class and vision vs the Sharks after being named at centre
Every Lions player is chasing a place in the Test team but for Elliot Daly there is an even grander prize – a chance to return to where he truly belongs and reignite his international career.
The 28-year-old was named in Warren Gatland’s tour squad among the midfield contingent and now he has been picked to start at outside centre against the Sharks at Ellis Park on Wednesday night. He will cherish the opportunity to operate in his preferred territory again.
When he emerged as a schoolboy sensation, Daly was a centre blessed with pace and nimble footwork, a playmaker’s instincts and a goal-kicking cannon of a left boot. Yet, at Test level, he has barely ever surfaced in his chosen position, playing just once in the No 13 shirt for England – against South Africa, as it happens, back in November, 2016.
Elliot Daly will start at outside centre for the British and Irish Lions on Wednesday vs the Sharks
He’ll look to impress and stake his claim for a place in the XV ahead of the South Africa series
In all, the Saracen has won 13 caps on the wing for England and 31 as the last line of defence. Eddie Jones persevered with him at full-back in the hope that he would eventually command that role, but it has never really worked out as intended. He has lacked assurance and lost his creative spark. Frankly, on occasions, it has been sad to see Daly so bereft of confidence and fluency.
His inclusion in the Lions squad appeared to be based on Gatland’s hunch that he would come good, four years after starting all three Tests against the All Blacks and having a hand in an epic, length-of-the-field try in the series opener at Eden Park. Daly had not made a powerful case with his Six Nations form, quite the opposite, and he went back to a club languishing in the Championship, but retained enough credit in the bank to take part in this British and Irish crusade.
For all the struggles he has endured, Daly remains a prodigious talent when the force is with him. His ability to take shots at goal from well inside his own half would offer the Lions a potent weapon in the Test series and for that reason alone, he must be considered a contender to be involved.
Encouragingly, he was sharp and threatening when he came off the bench against the local Lions, representing Gauteng, on Saturday. Against the Sharks, he is bound to receive the ball in space, given the likely gainline impact of midfield partner Bundee Aki, so there should be plenty of chances to remind Gatland and everyone else of his running class and his vision too.
Daly has only played at 13 once for England – often playing at full-back and his form has dipped
England may owe the Lions a debt of gratitude if Daly is able to remind them of his class at 13
It would be an unusual development for a player to use a Lions tour and series to rebuild their game and their self-belief, but that is the potential scenario for Daly in the coming weeks. If that is the up-shot of his return to favoured territory, England may owe Gatland and the Lions a debt of gratitude for showing them that this experienced back with a half-century of caps to his name may have utility value, but he is best employed as a specialist 13.
Meanwhile, another strong Lions line-up will expect to maul the Sharks at Ellis Park and several players on duty are capable of complicating Gatland’s Test selection planning, notably Tom Curry and Josh Navidi. The flankers join forces with Sam Simmonds in what has the look of a dynamic back-row unit, knowing that they have to hit the ground running as others such as Tadhg Beirne, Courtney Lawes and Hamish Watson have already enhanced their claims to face the Springboks.
The second row is another area of intrigue, given the uncertainty over whether Alun Wyn Jones will be cleared to re-join the tour in time for the Tests. At this juncture, it is shaping up as a tussle between Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill and Adam Beard for the right to partner Maro Itoje. Mighty Ulster lock Henderson will be captain on Wednesday and will hope to be as inspired by the extra responsibility as Stuart Hogg was last Saturday.
Iain Henderson has been named British and Irish Lions captain for the clash against the Sharks
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