Dan Kelly carries against Montpellier in the European Challenge Cup final
Credit: Getty Images
Four years ago, England brought an extremely green group to Argentina. Eddie Jones mined beyond established domestic players in a bid to unearth gems that could be polished by Rugby World Cup 2019.
The 34-man training squad announced today, a fortnight ahead of the ‘A’ fixture against Scotland at Welford Road on June 27, does not include men from any of the four Premiership semi-finalists.
There are some more experienced figures. Josh Bassett and Lewis Ludlow, as well as scrum-halves Ben Spencer and Dan Robson, are offered chances to impress their credentials. Elsewhere, Jones is attempting to find tyros capable of rearranging the established order.
Dan Kelly, who does not turn 20 until next week, is the party’s youngest member. But, given midfield remains an area of uncertainty for England, the teenage centre has a significant opportunity.
England’s 34-man training squad
We know that Jones places great stock in off-the-ball work and that he tracks players carefully on his visits to Premiership matches. Kelly already looks accomplished in this facet of the game – in both defence and attack.
Take this short passage from Leicester’s loss to Bath at The Rec two months ago. Kelly begins between Tommy Reffell and Matías Moroni as the hosts play away from a shortened lineout.
Josh Matavesi feeds Cameron Redpath with a pass across the face of blindside wing Will Muir. Reffell shifts across to cover the ball-carrier and a slice pattern emerges in front of Kelly:
Zach Mercer is running a short line with Jonathan Joseph arcing around in a second wave. Kelly cannot ignore either option.
If he commits to Mercer’s angle too early, a pull-back pass to Joseph could allow Bath to outflank Tigers. As it happens, Kelly stays patient:
Mercer receives the pass and is tackled. Kelly untangles himself and re-joins the defensive line, helping Dan Cole to stop Jack Walker. Again, Kelly bounces up. He completes a third tackle in the space of 10 seconds when Ben Spencer attempts to snipe:
Dan Kelly 1
Early in his tenure, Jones claimed that the only statistic he cared about was how quickly his players could get off the floor. He will enjoy working with Kelly, then.
Weeks later, a Tigers try against Harlequins underlined how selfless support running can open holes. Kelly only touches the ball once, but is integral to this score. First, watch it through:
Leicester call a trendy move and Kelly is the first-receiver from their lineout, pulling a pass behind Matt Scott to George Ford. This allows Nemani Nadolo to surge forward, setting up a breakdown in the middle of the field just in front of the Harlequins 22:
This is where the ripple effect of sheer graft allows Tigers to manipulate cracks in a defence that seems well set.
Kelly sprints towards Ford, circling around his fly-half. What is initially a two-on-two situation for Leicester – pitting Ford and right wing Guy Porter against Marcus Smith and Joe Marchant – becomes a three-on-two:
Smith is fixed by Ford and Marchant steps in, attracted by Kelly’s presence. The space is on the outside, and Ford sends Porter there:
Kelly is first to the ruck, and secures possession:
On the following phase, after being fed by Ben Youngs, lock Harry Wells carries with George Martin for company. Ford and Scott hold back:
Watch Kelly from this camera angle. You get a great idea of the ground he covers from the previous breakdown in order to reach Ford once more:
Smith and Luke Northmore are the defenders to watch this time, as Youngs’ pass reaches Ford. By this stage, Kelly has almost caught up:
Again, Smith is fixed by Ford. On his outside, though, Northmore is wary of jamming in because Leicester have an overlap. Having reached Ford’s outside shoulder, Kelly is a potential outlet to the wide channels:
Thanks to his hard work, Harlequins have more to think about. The hole is there for Scott, who takes Ford’s pass to score.
Kelly has won turnovers this season by holding up opponents and by jackalling. Clearly, Jones will want him to contribute on the ball as well.
This flat pass to Harry Potter, after taking a pull-back from Ford, led to a try against Bath:
His work ethic helps rack up carries, too. Here, in the European Challenge Cup final against Montpellier, he rounds Ford to pick a short line as opposing wing Vincent Rattez shuts off the passing lane to Nadolo:
Kelly is on the floor for the next phase as Tigers head towards the far touchline…
…but has started running across-field by the time Jasper Wiese is found by Youngs:
Sixteen seconds after his first carry, Kelly slips away from tighthead prop Mohamed Haouas:
Recalled to the Scotland set-up for this summer, Scott was omitted from that European decider at Twickenham with Kelly preferred by Steve Borthwick. The pair could come up against one another at Welford Road in the ‘A’ international later this month. Scott said this about his club colleague on Tuesday:
“I’ve seen a lot of talented youngsters but the best thing about the group we’ve got at Tigers is that they’re all really grounded and want to get better. That sounds simple, but you don’t see it very often in talented youngsters.
“There’s been a huge leap in terms of development from pre-season to now and it’s brought out the best in me because I’m having to push to be involved. Dan will go really far if he keeps this attitude for the rest of his career. He’s got a lot of talent.”
Borthwick calls Kelly “a fierce, fierce competitor” and singles out “character” and his biggest asset. An added bonus of Jones selecting him for England is that he will be tied to the nation of his birth with an appearance for the ‘A’ side. After being released by Sale Sharks, he shone for Ireland Under-20.
As Ollie Devoto and Mark Atkinson will attest, specialist inside centres have not found it easy to earn England recognition under Jones. Most players in this training squad will be cast aside again. Kelly could be one to kick on.
Match images courtesy of BT Sport
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Northampton Saints, scrum-half
An ex-apprentice, Mitchell is one of three scrum-halves in this first training squad alongside Spencer and Robson. Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke, as well as Jack van Poortvliet of Leicester, should all be snapping at the heels of Ben Youngs – rested for this summer – by 2023. Some are already. Injuries have caused Mitchell’s progress to stutter but he is a crisp passer and lively in broken-field situations.
London Irish, wing
Second-season syndrome has not affected the rangy, exciting London Irish wing. Although he has scored three fewer than 2019-20’s tally of nine Premiership tries, with one round to play, he looks more robust and seems to have widened his remit. Hassell-Collins has roamed around the field to feed teammates with offloads and is developing into a powerful threat in tight exchanges – something England have missed from wings in the absence of Joe Cokanasiga, finally back in the mix, and Jack Nowell.
Leicester Tigers, full-back
Another success story of Tigers’ resurgence is Steward, a tall full-back who possesses excellent aerial skills. Brave one-on-one tackling marks out the 20-year-old as a strong defensive operator despite his tender age. His performance in the Challenge Cup semi-final against Ulster, comprising powerful running, cute distribution and clever kicks, hinted at more to come.