>> Nick Cain re­ports Hart­ley or Ge­orge? Eng­land old guard give their ver­dicts

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DY­LAN Hart­ley or Jamie Ge­orge? The se­lec­tion dilemma at hooker, and its im­pact on the cap­taincy, is the burn­ing ques­tion for Red Rose fans as Ed­die Jones makes his plans for Eng­land’s twoyear run-in to the 2019 World Cup.

There is lit­tle doubt that if the Eng­land coach is go­ing to make any key­note strate­gic shifts be­fore the tour­na­ment that this sea­son – and the Au­tumn series in par­tic­u­lar – is the best time to do so.

Is switch­ing Ge­orge to be­come the starter at hooker, with cur­rent cap­tain Hart­ley re­vert­ing to the bench, such a seis­mic shift? There are those who be­lieve it is, oth­ers who take the op­po­site view, and some who tread a mid­dle line.

Mark Re­gan and Ge­orge Chuter, the two ri­vals for the Eng­land No.2 shirt go­ing into the 2007 World Cup fi­nal – with Re­gan start­ing and Chuter on the bench – were still play­ing when Hart­ley and Ge­orge were cut­ting their teeth in the pro game. Chuter is adamant that Ge­orge’s time has come, while Re­gan is a staunch sup­porter of Hart­ley.

Peter Wheeler, the for­mer Eng­land and Lions hooker, who will be RFU pres­i­dent dur­ing the 2019 World Cup, takes the view that Jones has the best of both worlds.

There are those like Re­gan who be­lieve Hart­ley should re­main as the start­ing hooker. Their ar­gu­ment is that the bond be­tween Jones,

be­low right, and the cap­tain he chose in the face of an avalanche of ad­vice not to do so, has been in­trin­sic to Eng­land’s tremen­dous run of 19 wins in the 20 Tests since then.

Hart­ley’s ad­vo­cates be­lieve that Eng­land’s engine is tick­ing along nicely, and that if it ain’t broke don’t start tam­per­ing. Like Chuter, I be­long to the group that be­lieves that the most fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple in the se­lec­tion game is that you pick the best player in the po­si­tion, bar noth­ing.

No one can ques­tion the ster­ling job Hart­ley has done so far as Eng­land cap­tain, with Jones a strong ad­vo­cate of the way the Northamp­ton hooker has in­flu­enced the team to set high stan­dards of their own.

Fur­ther­more, you can­not down­play Hart­ley’s mer­its as a highly ef­fec­tive set-piece hooker, whose scrum­mag­ing is solid and strik­ing ef­fi­cient, and whose line-out ac­cu­racy is im­pres­sive.

How­ever, de­spite those at­tributes, my view is that he fails the ‘best player in the po­si­tion’ exam, com­pared to Ge­orge. Like Hart­ley, the Sara­cens No.2 is also highly ef­fec­tive at the set-piece – and will be even more so if he con­tin­ues to work on his hook­ing. The point of dif­fer­ence is that while the mar­gins be­tween Ge­orge and Hart­ley are close in terms of scrum and line-out, the same is not true in the loose.

Chuter says that Ge­orge is not just bet­ter in the loose, but also in the tight: “Jamie Ge­orge wins it on both counts. Around the field he’s very ef­fec­tive – cer­tainly more so than Dy­lan – and he’s also very solid at the set piece in all re­spects. Dy­lan’s hook­ing is pretty good, but in the past he tended to stand up quite a lot and I never con­sid­ered him to be a great scrum­mager. He has also not been ev­i­dent much in the loose for the last four or five years, so in po­si­tional tech­nique Ge­orge is quite a long way ahead.”

He adds: “Ini­tially Dy­lan was quite good in the loose, es­pe­cially as a car­rier com­ing off sec­ond or third phase ball, but that’s not been ev­i­dent for some time. When he takes the ball now he doesn’t have the leg drive to break the tackle very of­ten.”

Chuter be­lieves that as well as Ge­orge’s per­for­mances as the start­ing Test hooker for the Lions in New Zealand be­ing too good for Eng­land to ig­nore, his con­sis­tency out­strips Hart­ley’s.

“The form hooker for most of last sea­son, as well as this, is Jamie Ge­orge. He was ex­cel­lent for Sara­cens, and also off the bench for Eng­land, and his per­for­mances for the Lions should make him the num­ber one for Eng­land.”

That is why Chuter says that this is the time to pro­mote Ge­orge, who turns 27 this month. “This is the time to do it. Eng­land have a squad with an av­er­age of 30 caps at the mo­ment, and that will be 50 caps by the World Cup. So, in a way the World Cup starts this au­tumn – and you have to ask your­self if a 33-yearold hooker (Hart­ley’s age in 2019) is go­ing to be play­ing in it?”

He adds: “Ed­die Jones knows about tim­ing hav­ing been in­volved in get­ting South Africa pre­pared so well in 2007. So he knows bet­ter than any­body that this is the time, be­cause most of the teams that have won World Cups have been very set­tled.”

Chuter says that as a for­mer hooker, Lions coach War­ren Gat­land, got his se­lec­tion right this sum­mer: “War­ren is no mug. He knows hook­ers and he chose to take Ge­orge and not Hart­ley on the Lions tour to New Zealand. Then, even though Ken Owens of Wales was the form hooker in the Six Na­tions, Ge­orge won the Test spot from him and Rory Best. He is very ver­sa­tile, and equally ef­fec­tive whether start­ing or off the bench – he has had to learn be­hind John Smit and Schalk Brits at Sara­cens, and they are not the worst to learn off.”

Re­gan is di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to that view. “I saw Dy­lan on the day of his tes­ti­mo­nial din­ner. Since then it’s been proved right that he should have gone on the Lions trip, mainly be­cause Rory Best wasn’t good enough. But I told him: ‘If you take an Eng­land team down to Ar­gentina, and win, then your stock will rise, and it will pro­long your ca­reer and cap­taincy.’ He went and did that, so I fully ex­pect Dy­lan to be cap­tain again this sea­son – and he’s earned it.”

Re­gan con­cedes that Ge­orge’s rep­u­ta­tion has also risen, but not as much as Hart­ley’s. “I thought the guys that went to New Zealand would lose stock value, but the Lions drew the series when no­body ex­pected them to, so fair play. But Dy­lan Hart­ley do­ing that in Ar­gentina will be big­ger for Ed­die Jones.”

He says that Hart­ley has a cru­cial edge over Ge­orge. “He’s an all-round old school scrum­mag­ing hooker. He’s maybe two per cent bet­ter at the line-out than Ge­orge, which is a lot at Test level. You are re­ally be­ing scru­ti­nised at the start of matches at in­ter­na­tional level, and that’s when your ba­sics at the scrum and line-out throw­ing have to be rock solid. Then, when it’s a bit looser, that’s when Ge­orge comes on.”

He adds: “Ge­orge has the up­per hand in the loose, and is also a solid scrum­mager. It takes me back to my sit­u­a­tion with Steve Thomp­son, who was bet­ter than me in the loose but not as good at the scrum or at the line-out.”

Re­gan also sug­gests that the Saints cap­tain is also good at manag­ing the de­mands of club and in­ter­na­tional rugby. “Hart­ley plays ex­cep­tion­ally well for Eng­land, and I fully back him. Although he’s got a dam­aged hand at the mo­ment that won’t worry Jones. He’ll be think­ing Dy­lan will be rar­ing to go when it gets to the Au­tumn in­ter­na­tion­als. His form is good – in his last match against Le­ices­ter he got man of the match – and af­ter a cou­ple of Euro­pean Cup matches he’ll be ready.” He adds: “Ed­die Jones is not stupid. These Eng­land camps are so in­tense, and maybe it’s dif­fi­cult to play a sea­son of top club rugby as well as top in­ter­na­tional rugby. The play­ers are get­ting drilled at these camps, and when some­one is in­jured play­ing club rugby, as long as it is not a bad one, he’ll say that’s per­fect.” Wheeler says that Hart­ley and Ge­orge com­pet­ing for the No.2 shirt is ideal. “Ed­die Jones would feel it’s the sort of prob­lem he wants, with two guys per­form­ing well, but in dif­fer­ent ways. He’s picked Hart­ley from the out­set as his cap­tain, and you can­not take is­sue with what they have achieved.” He

“In terms of heat Ge­orge was stand­ing right in front of the All Black fur­nace dur­ing the sum­mer tours”

adds: “Ge­orge had a good Lions tour, and Gat­land was not look­ing for a cap­tain when he se­lected his hookood ers. Ge­orge is a good top of the ground foot­baller who made the sort of con­tri­bu­tion his back row was mak­ing in the lose. He was mak­ing breaks into the mid­dle of the op­pos­ing tion de­fence, tak­ing a good line, and he has power. They are dif­fer­ent. Dy­lan is a big, phys­i­cal guy in the tight for­ward ar­eas.”

Wheeler be­lieves that how you man­age the tran­si­tion is cru­cial. “Ge­orge has been on early over the last 18 months of the bench, and this is where coaches earn their money – get­ting the best out of both play­ers. From Eng­land’s point of

view they have the man to make those fine judge­ments. You sense that he (Jones) is the master of tim­ing in that sit­u­a­tion. He is not scared of horses-for-cour­ses and who to pick for what op­po­si­tion.”

The di­vid­ing line for me is that the Lions tour proved that Ge­orge is well ahead in terms of mo­bil­ity, close-quar­ter thrust, han­dling, and also ef­fec­tive­ness in de­fence.

Eng­land de­served plau­dits for com­ing away from Ar­gentina with a two Test series win with an ex­per­i­men­tal tour squad, but the Pu­mas are not the force of old, es­pe­cially in the for­wards. New Zealand proved the point last week­end with their land­slide win in Buenos Aires de­spite de­lib­er­ately field­ing an un­der­strength team.

In terms of in­ten­sity and heat Ge­orge was stand­ing right in front of the All Black fur­nace dur­ing the sum­mer tours, whereas Hart­ley was able to pull up a chair and warm him­self by the Ar­gen­tine em­bers.

As for the cap­taincy, like any side Eng­land can­not af­ford to be­come over-de­pen­dent on any one player for lead­er­ship. It is an area where Jones has said he is not spoilt for choice, mainly be­cause too many Premier­ship Academy play­ers are spoon-fed. He has en­cour­aged Owen Far­rell and Billy Vu­nipola to step for­ward – but, per­haps in def­er­ence to Hart­ley, Ge­orge has not been men­tioned in lead­er­ship despatches.

Yet, he seems to have all the qual­i­fi­ca­tions, hav­ing been part of a Lions team that drew with New Zealand, and a key com­po­nent in Sara­cens’ side that is dou­ble Euro­pean Cup cham­pi­ons and has won two Premier­ship ti­tles.

It is hard to see what more Ge­orge could do on the pitch in terms of con­sis­tency and qual­ity, in­clud­ing that price­less habit of be­ing in the right place at the right time. The ar­tic­u­late Sara­cens man also has the steady, un­flap­pable char­ac­ter­is­tics of which good cap­tains are made.

Those lead­er­ship cre­den­tials should al­lay the fear that a rol­ere­ver­sal in­volv­ing Hart­ley mov­ing to the bench means that you lose a cap­tain. In Ge­orge you have a sea­soned al­ter­na­tive, who is in the prime of his ca­reer – and is at the mo­ment Eng­land’s best, and most con­sis­tent all-round hooker.

Hart­ley: Mark Re­gan

Both: Peter Wheeler

Ge­orge: Ge­orge Chuter

Cap­tains in wait­ing? Owen Far­rell and Billy Vu­nipola

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