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Is it time England fans started valuing this 'unfashionable' trio of players?

By Alex Shaw
Former England captain Chris Robshaw

Dylan Hartley. Mike Brown. Chris Robshaw.

As trios go, these three players take an inordinate amount of flak from rugby fans and even some sections of the media.

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Every time they are selected in an England Elite Player Squad their inclusions are treated with indifference, whilst their places in matchday XVs are often bemoaned, with a string of other players regularly offered up as preferred alternatives.

For a myriad of reasons, they have become “unfashionable” players.

And yet, they have been stalwarts of Eddie Jones’ tenure as England head coach, playing integral roles in the 22 victories to have come in the 23 games he has presided over.

Excluding the uncapped match against the Barbarians prior to the summer tour in Argentina, Hartley has been ever-present for England under Jones and Brown has been very close to it, playing 21 of his nation’s 23 matches over the past two years, with injury ruling him out of two contests.

Robshaw’s 16 games are slightly less, but mitigated by the shoulder injury he suffered last season and that ruled him out of the 2017 Six Nations.

All three have been vital to England’s success over the last two years, playing key roles in two Six Nations triumphs – one of which was a Grand Slam – and whitewashes over Argentina and Australia, as well as ending a winless run against South Africa that was closing in on a decade in length.

As England’s fans have gone from seeing their national team’s success as a pleasant surprise after the travails of the 2015 Rugby World Cup to an expected level of performance befitting the number two team in the world, their time for this trio has, seemingly, diminished.

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The likes of Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph are rightfully credited with their roles in England’s rise, but captain Hartley and the long-serving Quins pairing of Brown and Robshaw have not been so fortunate.

One of England’s unsung heroes?

Perhaps it is because they are hangovers from previous England eras where success was not as prevalent as it is now.

Or maybe it is because they are all in their 30’s and with the plethora of young talent coming through, people already want to see plans for 2023 and 2027 put into place.

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It would be naïve to suggest Hartley’s disciplinary record doesn’t play into it, or that Brown’s passionate temperament on the field, which some consider petulance, isn’t also a factor.

Robshaw probably gets a bye, here. Even among his most ardent critics, the flanker is grudgingly admitted as particularly likeable as a person.

For many, it will be a combination of these factors and it will be something that they can easily hide behind their eulogising of the alternatives as better-suited to taking England forward.

Those arguments won’t lack for merit, in fairness, with a host of players knocking on the door at hooker, flanker and full-back.

The sensational form of British and Irish Lion Jamie George over the last couple of seasons is hard to ignore, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill have risen fast through the ranks, whilst both Itoje and Courtney Lawes have been mooted as potential blindsides with the bottleneck to start at lock becoming ever more competitive.

As for full-back, Brown’s starting back three colleagues from England’s win over Argentina earlier this month, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly, seem to split the fans’ vote on who should play 15, but both are fervently supported, with Semesa Rokoduguni and Jonny May eagerly backed to take the resulting vacant spot on the wing.

They are all certainly exciting options and that might be the crux of it. They are exciting.

For all the merits of Hartley, Brown and Robshaw, which we will come on to very shortly, they are not the most exciting players in world rugby.

Hartley isn’t built in the mould of Dane Coles, patrolling the wide channels with an offload game that is a threat to release support runners.

Robshaw is not the fleet, contact area-to-contact area jackal that England fans have long expected, perhaps unfairly, him to be.

And Brown isn’t the scintillating counter-attacker that Israel Folau is, with the Australian offering “grab the popcorn” moments almost every time he takes to the field.

What all three are, though, is very good rugby players.

England’s lineout has been an incredibly consistent foundation for them over the last two seasons, something which they have used to launch their dangerous backline and strong maul from. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see the influence Hartley has had in this area.

His captaincy, too, is often overlooked. England weren’t necessarily in dire straits after the 2015 RWC, with plenty of young talent to tap into and the financial muscle to ensure the game can still thrive in the shadow of football, but the mood was dark. Putting the burden of captaincy on his shoulders when the feeling towards the England team was so sombre, was a remarkably difficult challenge and one which he has passed with flying colours.

It’s easy to watch a game and point to a missed tackle or a knock-on, but it’s impossible, unless you’re in the camp, to see what Hartley does on and off the field to lead and galvanise his side.

Moving on to Brown and with the absence of the ever-polarising James Haskell, the full-back seems to have become the player that England fans love to hate, but it is an unwarranted accolade.

World rugby is full of passionate individuals who play with their hearts on their sleeves. Brown’s teammate Farrell is one, Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony another and few can match the on-field commitment and dedication to the jersey of Sergio Parisse or Mamuka Gorgodze. They all display it on the pitch and it can lead to them shouting and remonstrating with teammates, the opposition and even the referee, but they are all praised for their passion, whilst Brown is not.

For some reason, when he does it, it is deemed petulance.

It’s not as if he’s off throwing cheap shots at players behind their back or pulling the old “99” call and running, like JPR Williams, over 30 metres to get into a scrap. It’s playing right on that line of being emotionally-driven and all the physical benefits that can bring, but still being able to consciously control it.

Unfortunately, our schema is that when we see players we like act instinctively and emotionally, we call it passion, but when we see a player we don’t like doing it, we call it petulance.

Brown’s issues are PR-related, not rugby related

As for his technical ability on the field, he is the best English-qualified full-back in Jones’ eyes and it is hard to dispute that assertion.

With the amount of kicking that teams do from hand in the modern game and the strictness of the laws surrounding the competition for the ball in the air, having a full-back that can diffuse the aerial bombs is paramount to any side hoping to be the best team in the world. Look closely at some of the best sides in Test rugby, both New Zealand and Ireland, as well as England themselves, and you’ll see sides that kick to put pressure on the opposition, rather than simply kicking to clear.

It is because of this that you need a full-back like Brown.

His consistency and bravery in the aerial game is unmatched in English rugby. That’s your starting point for building your back three and then you work outward from that.

He showed in Argentina this summer, too, a new level of awareness in his counter-attacking, playing with the ball in two hands, drawing men and making passes. He gets hammered by critics when he doesn’t do that, but there are times in a game when a full-back does just need to put his head down and run straight. It can’t be length of the field magic every time.

Lastly, we come to Robshaw.

The former England captain is yet to lose under Jones, having missed the loss to Ireland in Dublin due to injury, and is on a 16-match international win streak. He invariably plays the full 80 minutes, tackling, carrying and rucking with the same industrious efficiency in the final 10 minutes, as he does in the first.

He may no longer be captain, but he is another leader on the pitch, just as Brown is, and both complement Hartley’s captaincy, rather than detracting from it.

Robshaw’s quiet leadership has benefited England

The success of the past two years makes it easy to forget that England are still a young team and whilst they have emerging leaders in the forms of Farrell, Itoje and Joseph, having those veteran influences is invaluable, especially in tight contests.

Between them, the trio account for 209 caps and bring a great wealth of experience to the team. The only other players in the regular England starting XV with over 50 caps are Farrell, Lawes, Dan Cole and Ben Youngs.

There should not be an eagerness to discard such wisdom from a side that is winning games. If England were struggling and the wheels looked to be coming off Jones’ revolution, then the calls would be understandable, but except for a fired-up Ireland side on St Patrick’s Day weekend, this England side have met – and passed – every challenge that has been presented to them thus far.

And this is what Hartley, Brown and Robshaw are. They are winners.

It is easy to identify technical and physical traits in players, but it is a lot harder, at least without knowing the individuals yourself, to see those mental traits and the influence that they can have on the pitch.

The trio’s passion, dedication and unwillingness to accept defeat has been a significant factor in England’s rise to prominence and it is something which should be recognised alongside the impacts of the newer and younger players on the squad.

If there is one thing England should take from New Zealand, it is that they don’t allow consistent success to bore them and make them yearn for change. The All Blacks’ two most recent World Cup-winning sides were packed with experienced players, who knew their roles and executed them to a high standard.

The quality and quantity of talented young players in England has never been better and they will get their opportunities. Some will be ready now, some will be involved after the RWC, but if England’s goal is to win their second Webb Ellis Cup in Japan in two years’ time, it’s probably best to put the grumbling on ice for a couple of years.

Hartley, Brown and Robshaw have been invaluable to England since 2015 and until their form in a white jersey drops, they will continue to be so.

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Shaylen 6 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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FEATURE Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma
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