There is an added excitement for Elliot Daly this year when England take on the Barbarians in their annual Twickenham affair, and not just because it will end a near-eight month wait for international rugby to return to the country.
In an effort to prepare Eddie Jones’s squad for their Six Nations finale against Italy and the ensuing Autumn Nations Cup by taking on a Baa-Baas side that will be coached by current Fiji head coach Vern Cotter, the former Scotland boss. The match is normally considered something of an exhibition, a chance for Jones to give his fringe players an audition for their summer tour against a team of global star names who play hard and party harder.
But this match has taken on a greater importance in recent years. In 2018 a Barbarians side featuring Fiji all-stars Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova lit up Twickenham and condemned England to defeat, thanks largely to Chris Ashton’s hat-trick that earned him a recall to the Test side. Last year, an inexperienced England secured a frantic 51-43 victory, in which five of the current training squad proved they were good enough to feature in Jones’s future plans while Joe Marler earned his own way back into the England fold through an outing with the invitational side.
This year, the match takes on significant importance for Jones as it will provide the only tune-up before their trip to Rome, when England will look to clinch the Six Nations crown in their championship battle with Ireland and France. But it will also provide something of an answer towards one of rugby’s most common questions: could Saracens really beat England?
It was a question that we never thought could be answered, and in truth still won’t be as the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Daly will be wearing the red rose rather than the Barbarians strip. But with no fewer than 11 Saracens players named in Cotter’s squad, there will be a decidedly north London feel to the rest of the world outfit.
“I think it could be quite fun,” Daly said a week ahead of the encounter. “A few of them found out towards the end of our season that they were going to be playing in it but they have obviously added a few more.
“It will be exciting for those guys and exciting for us. We train against each other all the time but very rarely play against each other.
“I have played in a few of these games and it is a really good chance to try things that you think might work going into the autumn or look at things you might need in certain games, but at the end of the day you are playing for England and at Twickenham as well, so it is just a good chance to play with each other before the games that really matter.”
The Baa-Baas added Sean Maitland, Tim Swinson, Joel Kpoku, Calum Clark, Dom Morris, Juan Pablo Socino, Alex Lewington and Tom Woolstencroft to the squad that will take on England, with teammate Richard Wigglesworth, Jackson Wray and Manu Vunipola already added alongside former England captain Chris Robshaw.
But there will be one name who Daly will keep an eye out for, with Vunipola - the younger cousin of current internationals Mako and Billy - set to pull the strings from fly-half.
“I have been really impressed with him since I joined Sarries,” Daly added. “For a young guy he has worked incredibly hard and found the way he wants to play in the last couple of years, which is brilliant.
“He always wants to learn, he listens and he is very forthright in what he wants to do on the pitch as well which is exactly what you want from a 10.”
But why has the ‘Wolfpack’ suddenly infiltrated the Barbarians? Two key reasons stand out. The first is the obvious one, with the coronavirus pandemic making it particularly tricky for international players to jet in for the encounter, not to mention with Australia, New Zealand and Argentina all tied up in Rugby Championship action. The second though is because Saracens have no idea when they will be playing again. Their relegation to the Championship for serious salary cap breaches could not have come at a worse time given their still isn’t a start date for the second tier of English rugby. With Covid-19 resulting in the sport implementing strict measures to take place - such as social distancing, regular testing and rule changes - it could be quite some time before the Saracens return to action.
That mean players will have to take any opportunity to play in the coming months to remain relevant, although for their international players such as Daly it will be significantly easier to stay match fit. However, the former Wasps man is not letting himself think about when Saracens will next get the chance to play together.
“All that stuff is up in the air and the only thing we can control is what we’re doing now up until the end of these games in December,” he said.
“Until then, obviously we should be thinking about how we can do our best here and how we put our best foot forward. When it comes to (Saracens) you don’t know what’s going to happen, so there’s no point wasting time on it now. It could change in an instance and we could be starting when we’re meant to start or not.
“It’s just concentrating on what you can do now, concentrating on this camp and try to hopefully get England winning all the games - and winning all the games at Twickenham especially.”