Hartley playing for England place in George showdown
DYLAN Hartley accepts that the onus is on him to prove he is worthy of the England captaincy on the eve of his duel with international rival Jamie George. Northampton hooker Hartley will line up against George in the opening round of Champions Cup action when Saracens visit Franklin’s Gardens today.
Hartley, 31, is the incumbent England captain, but George, who earlier this week signed a new long-term contract with the reigning European champions and current Aviva Premiership leaders, started all three Tests for the Lions in New Zealand this summer. England head coach Eddie Jones, however, has stayed committed to Hartley, with all of George’s 17 England caps coming from the bench.
“If I play well for my club, as an aspiring England player would, then I give myself a good shot,” said Hartley when asked about his England prospects.
“Eddie has made it clear that he is not picking players because of what they have done. It needs to be earned.
“I am an aspiring England player, and an aspiring England captain, and if it is on anyone, it is on me to make an example. I need to be playing well. That is as expected. Nothing comes easy and everything is earned, so I wouldn’t expect it any other way.”
Hartley returned to action in Northampton’s defeat at Gloucester last weekend after missing three matches with a hand injury. He came through the match unscathed, and will go head to head with George, five years his junior, today.
“It is not about me and him,” Hartley said. “Look, we have got a good working relationship and again I look forward to the challenge. We are team-mates in another environment so it works.”
Saints were demolished by Saracens in their opening fixture of the season, but they responded in emphatic fashion with five consecutive victories — including the high-profile scalps of Leicester Tigers and Harlequins — before last week’s five-point defeat at the Kingsholm Stadium.
“Six weeks ago we got a hiding,” Hartley added. “That was us being at one end of the scale, and Sarries were at the other.
“We have made some big gains as a squad and to get another shot to test ourselves again against the European champions and league leaders domestically is a good opportunity for us to see where we are at.
“You have got to respect your opponents. We can talk about them, and go on about their success, but our focus this week is to prepare well and focus on ourselves.”
Welsh challengers the Scarlets and Ospreys both face tough encounters today, with the Scarlets heading to three-time European champions Toulon in Pool Five and Ospreys hosting Pool Two opponents Clermont Auvergne, who were beaten by Saracens in last season’s final.
“It’s a big start and a tough one with the five-day turnaround (Scarlets host Bath next Friday). We have to be smart how we manage the players,” said Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac. “We learnt a lot of lessons from last season. We need to look at where we have depth, and use it wisely over the next few weeks.
“We will be going there with one thing in mind, and that is getting as many points as possible.
“They are big, they are powerful and they have a lot of talent in their squad. If you underestimate them, it’s at your peril, and we certainly won’t be doing that. It will be a big day at the office.”
The Scarlets starting XV includes Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who left Toulon earlier this year, while the Ospreys will hope to put poor Guinness PRO14 form to one side when Clermont arrive in Swansea.
“We’ve got a good record at the Liberty Stadium against French sides,” said head coach Steve Tandy.
“We’ve gone up against some outstanding teams there over the years and beaten some top sides, including Clermont.
“It is important that we go into this game believing in ourselves. We want to make sure that we kick off the campaign positively.”