After a busy international summer that saw England take a largely developmental squad down to Argentina and record a 2-0 series victory, as well as 15 prominent players play vital roles in the British and Irish Lions’ series draw in New Zealand, the England captaincy is once again up for debate.
Head coach Eddie Jones was impressed by Jamie George’s role as a starter for the Lions in all three of their Tests and he has admitted that the England captaincy is a “series by series appointment” and that current incumbent Dylan Hartley is well-aware of that.
When the players rendezvous for a short training camp in Oxford later this month, Hartley, barring any unforeseen circumstances, will retain the captaincy. That said, Jones has also been clear that he is watching players’ form post-Lions and that no one’s spot in the team is safe, including that of his captain.
No one ever said coaching was easy
Speaking at Soccerex, the Australian was, however, effusive with praise for Hartley and the role he has had as captain over the last two years.
“He is a lunatic, but a nice lunatic. Nice lunatics are good to run a team. He’s not the greatest player in the world, but he leads by example.”
“He knows the value of how hard he has to work and because he leads like that it sets a great example for the rest of the team.”
And why wouldn’t Jones be happy with what he has seen from Hartley?
Since the New Zealand-born hooker’s appointment as captain, he has started 20 of England’s 21 games, leading the side to 19 victories in those 20 matches. The only match he has missed was the uncapped game against the Barbarians earlier this year.
Over that period, Hartley’s performances at international level have been good and his captaincy has been exemplary, making him a strong candidate to not only retain the captaincy for the upcoming Oxford training camp, but also for the Autumn series against Argentina, Australia and Samoa.
George is pushing hard for his spot in the XV, however, and it is far from a certainty that Hartley will have the two jersey come November. If that does become a reality, Hartley’s leadership around the squad will still be invaluable, but Jones and England will need to look at an alternative captain for the starting XV, with Hartley potentially continuing in a role akin to that of a club captain.
The most obvious replacement would seem to be Owen Farrell.
He, along with Billy Vunipola, has been a vice captain throughout Jones’ tenure, he is the demonstrative leader that many coaches love in the captaincy role and he is as close to a guaranteed starter as England have. He is currently being managed back into regular action following the Lions tour, sitting out Saracens’ season-opening win over Northampton but coming off the bench in their round two loss to Bath.
Would Farrell be next-man-up for England?
Vunipola is another option and, after having the summer off to have a persistent shoulder issue operated on, will be as fresh as anyone coming into the international window. The opportunity to hit the ground running and not have any kind of Lions or international hangover will do his prospects no harm at all, with the powerful ball-carrier targeting a return to club action in the next 2-3 weeks.
Two further players who Jones has trusted with leadership roles are George Ford and Chris Robshaw, with the pair being named co-captains for England’s match with the Barbarians.
Robshaw obviously comes with plenty of captaincy experience, having led England 42 times previously, whilst Ford captained England at U20 level and was appointed vice captain in Argentina, with Farrell away with the Lions. Mike Brown and Danny Care joined Ford as vice captains on that tour.
One player who has yet to be given an official leadership position by Jones, but who has consistently shown himself to be both a passionate and cerebral leader of men, is Maro Itoje.
Well, he’s achieved almost everything else already
His youth and enthusiasm may work against him, but like Farrell, he is as close to a guaranteed starter as you are going to get in the current England team.
The irony is that, with the possible exception of the New Zealand captain, no captaincy in Test rugby gets debated and analysed as much as the England position, yet Jones’ continual selection of multiple vice captains and natural leaders throughout his squads mean that there is a much larger support network for the England captain on the pitch than many of his opponents have the luxury of.
Given the form England have been in under Hartley, it is understandable to be reluctant to want to change his role.
As the mantra goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But international rugby isn’t always about being broken or working, it is about striving to be the best possible team that you can be and the form that George has shown over the last couple of seasons is getting harder and harder to ignore.
Jones has that Oxford training camp and seven weeks of club rugby to make a decision over his starting hooker and for everyone bar Hartley and George – and possibly Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Singleton – it is going to be a joy to watch.
Hartley laid down the gauntlet with arguably his best club showing in the past two seasons against Leicester Tigers on Saturday, putting in an all-action performance and clearly relishing his re-appointment as Northampton captain. It is now George’s turn, who is still yet to be integrated back into club rugby following his summer exploits, to respond.
If poor club form was affecting Hartley’s stock last season, he rectified that on Saturday
We are heading into the final half of the current Rugby World Cup cycle and the decisions made now will shape how teams perform in Japan in two years’ time.
England have the leadership and captaincy prospects to make a change if they believe it will make them a better team, but equally, Hartley has done nothing to warrant losing the position he has occupied for the past two seasons.
These are the decisions that separate the great coaches from the good coaches and all eyes will be on Jones, Hartley and George over the next two months.