After years of debates in the media and amongst fans over the identity of who England’s openside flanker should be, it seems the focus has now moved further forward in the pack, with the hooker spot now the crux of many fans’ and pundits’ selection anxieties.
Dylan Hartley has overseen a period of almost complete success for England, but his spot in the team, as well as his position as captain, are under constant attack from his detractors. One of the key reasons for this has been the plethora of options England have at the position.
The production line at hooker has chugged along nicely over the last few years, with Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tom Dunn all impressing at their respective clubs, Jack Singleton earning an early England call-up and both Tommy Taylor and Jack Walker seeing their hopes briefly derailed by significant injuries, but are certainly in the conversation moving forward.
There is clearly no shortage of alternates, but that pool could be about to get even larger in the next few years, with Bristol U18s star Will Capon preparing to enter the world of senior rugby full-time.
The 18-year-old is in his last year of schooling at Bristol Grammar School and is a veteran of last season’s England U18s side, proving to be a core member of the group that took on their European rivals in the spring, before travelling to South Africa in the summer to compete in the annual U18 series with South Africa, France and Wales.
Despite still being at school, the hooker has already begun his senior career, featuring in the Bristol United side that beat London Irish in the A League in September, before going on to make his full senior debut, coming off the bench against Doncaster Knights in the British and Irish Cup.
The club are not rushing Capon, though, and since the beginning of the academy league in December, he has been back with the U18s, captaining the side that took apart Bath in the opening round, before losing a tight game with Saracens at Allianz Park in round two.
In terms of the type of player he is, there are certainly shades of Jamie George about Capon.
As a runner, he is a potent mix of elusive, quick and powerful. This can see younger players lean towards pinning their ears back and not being aware of support, but nothing could be further from the truth for Capon, who keeps his head on a swivel and has a proclivity to unlock his arms from contact and pop sympathetic and accurate offloads to his teammates.
The hookers that can do that, both in the tight and in the more open, wider channels, are rightfully praised and you need look no further than George or Cowan-Dickie to see good examples of it, whilst Dane Coles has become the master of this craft down in New Zealand.
He might not dominate at this age-grade level quite as much as Cowan-Dickie did, who had senior-level power before he even left school, but there is one thing that separates Capon from all those other impressive English hookers at this level and that’s what he does with the ball in his hands.
He loves to carry the ball in two hands, which is great to keep defenders guessing and bring in support runners either side of him. Furthermore, he moves from two-hands-on to a one-handed carry in a flash and has a piston of a fend, which allows him either break the tackle and keep running or at least keep the ball free of the tackle and make the offload a possibility.
That technique, decision-making and confidence in his ability to pull it off are all difference-makers at this level and bode well for his future senior career.
His set-piece game is strong, too, but this is inevitably the area where any young front-rower will encounter difficulties upon stepping up to the senior game.
He scrummages well and this is perhaps no surprise, given he played at tighthead prop prior to moving to hooker and a similar move, albeit from loosehead prop to hooker, certainly didn’t hinder Cowan-Dickie’s ability as a scrummager.
Again, he throws well at the lineout, but this will undoubtedly be challenged in the seniors. It is one thing to nail throws at school, academy and age-grade levels, but when you go up against experienced lineout operators who work on disrupting the opposition throw most days of the week and add in the pressure of playing in the seniors, it can put off even the best throwers.
Bristol have a good recent track record in producing front-rowers, with Ellis Genge now an England international, Ollie Dawe a graduate of the U20s and making strides as a tighthead and Tom Rowlands, who was an important part of the U18 side with Capon last year, perhaps just an injury in the U20 EPS away from featuring in the U20 Six Nations and World Rugby U20 Championship.
As for Capon, don’t rule out an early U20 call-up in the summer should injuries hit Gabriel Oghre, Henry Walker or Beck Cutting, but his focus will be on Bristol and the England U18s, the former of whom are in the mix to make finals day at Allianz Park at the end of the season.
The arrival of Pat Lam at Bristol also bodes well for Capon, with the hooker’s skilful play something which could lead to him eventually becoming a mainstay in a Bristol side that are going to be ambitious in the way they play under the Kiwi. High-intensity was a big part of Lam’s sides in Auckland and Galway and that plays into Capon’s wheelhouse.
Bristol and Lam are also keen to build a team with a Bristolian core and there is every chance that Capon will be a big part of that over the coming years.
If he can make that leap, he could find himself in a particularly exciting position battle after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
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