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Guscott column: Elliot Daly is in many ways England’s best back

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Jeremy Guscott

ALL three of England’s leading fly-halves are playing well as they prepare for the tour to South Africa. We saw Owen Farrell’s brilliance for Saracens against Wasps in last weekend’s Premiership semi-final, and we know his attacking game has improved game-on-game, year-on-year.

It was good to see George Ford back to his best in his last match of the season for Leicester, playing right in the face of the defence and putting players through gaps with his passes, as well as taking those gaps himself.

Even so, Danny Cipriani is without doubt the best attacker of the three ball-in-hand. He takes it so close to the defender – almost within touching distance – before making him commit, and that is priceless. What is so dangerous is that when he gets his pass away it is usually so well timed and so well weighted that the receiver is through the hole and the defence is scrambling from there onwards.

Cipriani is the master of that skill. Although both Farrell and Ford are also capable of it they do not quite have his delivery. However, overall Farrell is ahead in the No.10 ratings because of his mental strength. He is a world class goal-kicker and has very good, varied distribution – and the same applies to his kicking game. Farrell also has that ability to put mistakes behind him and concentrate on the job in hand. My only reservation is that although he tackles hard his defence is not as good as many people think.

Cipriani is more likely to get frustrated, especially when he delivers passes which his team-mates do not read – but you cannot allow that to interfere with your game at international level. You have to stay focused. As for defence, it has never been his strong suit.

Ford also has an all-round game, and is reasonably sound in defence, but he has not been as dangerous in attack as the other two.

There is always competition for places in Test rugby, and because Cipriani is playing so well in attack and Farrell is too important to leave out of the starting line-up, it makes Ford vulnerable.

I would not consider Cipriani at full-back because he is wasted there. He doesn’t play enough at 15, and he would be doing a job rather than owning the position. Cipriani’s best position is No.10, and that is why he has got to be on the bench in South Africa from the outset. It would be a joke to take him on tour if he did not get game time at fly-half.

What is clear going into this series against the Springboks is that Eddie Jones is still pondering his 10-12-13 combination. After he took over as England coach he soon decided that Ford was the player he wanted at 10, and it made sense for Farrell to go to 12 because there was no one else who challenged and made it their own.

With Jonathan Joseph at 13 it was successful, and it saw England win a Six Nations Grand Slam, a series victory in Australia, and then another Six Nations title.

Following England’s three recent defeats, and the injury to Joseph, that midfield dynamic has changed, and with Cipriani enhancing the options Jones is taking a pretty exciting back line to South Africa.

It is intriguing because he has another serious option now at 13 with Alex Lozowski. He reminds me of Jonny Wilkinson in terms of his commitment in the tackle, and he also has the ability and the mental strength to do the job.

Midfield plans: Alex Lozowski would suit playing outside Ben Te’o at 13 (photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

When you have lots of options it can be a bit of a minefield, especially when you have to find the best combination from players like Ford, Farrell, Cipriani, Lozowski, Ben Te’o and Henry Slade.

In the end Jones has to pick combinations and stick with them. I have made no secret that I would like to see Te’o at 12 because of the ballast he brings. He is a huge threat when he is running straight and aggressively because he delivers quick ball for England.

I have no problem with Farrell at 10, Te’o at 12 and Lozowski at 13. In an ideal world I would also like to see Elliot Daly as an option at outside-centre because he is ultra-gifted and in many ways the best back that England have.

I could also see a great 10-12-13 attacking line-up of Cipriani, Farrell and Lozowski, but I doubt it is one that Jones will pick –  because England have to find out what Te’o can do.

Maro Itoje was so off the boil playing for England at times this season that there were suggestions he was being asked to play a different way – and maybe it’s the same with Te’o. England need to get more out of him. He’s shown how potent he can be as a finisher with England already, and how explosive he can be with the Lions.

England are not getting the best out of some of their players, and Te’o is one of them.

You sense that they just need to set him free to do what he is good at, which is direct and explosive running, committing defenders, off-loading when able and doing some serious damage.

England will get decent ball in this series if forwards like Itoje, Mako and Billy Vunipola, and Nathan Hughes show the form they did in last Saturday’s semi.

If that happens the England backline should be capable of being devastating whatever the  permutations.

*This article originally featured in TRP’s 27 May 2018 edition.

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