No man is indispensible but one member of the England backline is starting to prove as close to undroppable as any can be under demanding supremo Eddie Jones.
Elliot Daly’s sustained excellence across three backline positions is making him one of the first names on the sheet according to former Red Rose head coach Brian Ashton.
Daly, 24, an outside-centre for his club who has proved equally adept on England’s wing during the Six Nations, is also seen as a potential long-term replacement for full-back Mike Brown.
Such quality and versatility brought his 13th cap against Ireland on Saturday, and his performances have added his name to the list of backs contending for a place on this summer’s Lions tour.
Ashton has been a huge admirer of the Wasps flyer since he first clapped eyes him as a 15-year-old playing in England’s age-group set-up.
Ashton, who now mentors young coaches in both rugby and football, told The Rugby Paper: “It’s a big call to say Daly has to start somewhere because I don’t think anybody can have that right, but given his qualities you’d think, ‘let’s get him on the team-sheet’.
“I came across him when he was playing for England U16s and I thought this guy has got something special. He’s matured a hell of a lot since then, mentally as well as in other areas, and he’s very capable of handling big occasions.
“I really don’t know what his best position is. You sense with a free spirit like Elliot it could be full-back where he can pick and choose how he plays his way into the game to cause most havoc, but in the 13 shirt and on the wing he’s also pretty damned good.
“He can also win you a game from a 60-metre penalty, which nobody else in the England team can, so you’d imagine he’s high in the Eddie Jones’ thinking.”
Daly’s impact has added to the overall strength-in-depth of a squad which, Ashton believes, is now on a par with Clive Woodward’s World Cup-winning class of 2003 – a side he helped construct before taking charge of the RFU’s National Academy.
Ashton said: “England now are a bit like the side in 2003 when suddenly, for whatever reason, a really good group of players has come together at international level. Players are challenging in every position and I don’t think anyone will feel remotely comfortable about holding on to a starting shirt, which is a fantastic position for Eddie Jones.
“In many positions Eddie’s spoilt for choice. If you look at the second row, there are four world-class locks in Itoje, Kruis, Launchbury and Lawes, and in the back row he’s now got Billy Vunipola back, who’s a real talisman for this England side.
“Billy’s lost weight, he’s improved his conditioning so he can play for 80 minutes instead of just 55 and he seems to have improved his awareness when he’s on the ball. He’s not just a go-forward player, he’s now a real footballing player who can offload before and after contact and he’s a massive, massive threat to opposition defences.”
Attack specialist Ashton, below, favours persevering with Owen Farrell outside George Ford but believes Ben Te’o offers a viable option. “I’ve always advocated having two playmakers in midfield,” Ashton said. “It increases your attacking options massively, and Farrell can do all the other bits and is a tough guy mentally and physically so can hold up his channel defensively.
“Te’o offers a different way of playing the game at 12 if Eddie feels he needs more punch in midfield. It’s great for England that they can switch so many people around without disrupting the overall rhythm.”
Despite minimal personnel changes, Ashton identifies a significant change in England’s mindset since their 2015 World Cup capitulation. He said: “There’s a sense that every time England go out now they expect to win. In Eddie they have a coach who’s keen to challenge players to take responsibility and ownership and deal with things as they happen on the field.
“People talk about coaches and tactics, but it’s the intangibles, adaptability and leadership for what’s happening on the field that separates the best teams from the rest – and in that respect England have made tremendous strides since 2015.”