Stick­ing with Hart­ley over Ge­orge may un­der­mine Ed­die’s au­thor­ity

The Rugby Paper - - News -

CAP­TAINCY has of­ten caused con­tro­versy in Rugby Union, and there is one which has been brew­ing for some time with Ed­die Jones re­tain­ing Dy­lan Hart­ley as his skip­per and start­ing hooker.

It started in earnest when Jamie Ge­orge was picked ahead of Eng­land cap­tain Hart­ley for the 2017 Lions tour, and went on to win the No.2 shirt in all three Tests against the All Blacks.

For most ob­servers the achieve­ment of be­ing part of a drawn se­ries against New Zealand, not to men­tion hav­ing two Euro­pean Cup win­ners medals for Sara­cens on his man­tel­piece, should have seen Ge­orge start yes­ter­day’s open­ing Au­tumn in­ter­na­tional against Ar­gentina.

Among other con­sid­er­a­tions, if the Eng­land coach has any lin­ger­ing doubts about Ge­orge’s cre­den­tials, how bet­ter to test them than against the Pu­mas strong­man hooker, and cap­tain, Agustin Creevy – es­pe­cially as it would af­ford him a di­rect com­par­i­son with Hart­ley’s two matches against the Ar­gen­tine tal­is­man on the sum­mer tour.

The re­mark­able thing is that be­cause Jones ap­pears im­mov­able on the sub­ject, the re­ceived wis­dom, par­roted far and wide, is that Hart­ley is play­ing well. My ob­ser­va­tion over the course of this sea­son – and the end of last sea­son – is that this is not the case, and that the ele­phant in the room is get­ting big­ger by the week.

While Hart­ley’s set piece work for Northamp­ton has been solid, his con­tri­bu­tion around the pitch has not hit the heights – in fact, he has of­ten strug­gled to make a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact in the loose. This is re­flected in tackle counts and car­ry­ing statis­tics that are av­er­age at best.

At the mo­ment it seems that Hart­ley is be­ing pro­tected not just by Jones’ pa­tron­age, but by a track-record as Eng­land cap­tain which, with 19 wins in 20 Tests go­ing into the Au­tumn se­ries, brooks no ar­gu­ment.

How­ever, that record is ob­scur­ing im­por­tant is­sues. The big­gest of them is that Jones is in dan­ger of hav­ing one rule for his cap­tain, and one rule for the rest of the squad. The rule that ap­pears to gov­ern Hart­ley is that un­til he has a bad run in the Eng­land shirt it does not mat­ter if his form is only av­er­age for his club – or how well a ri­val like Ge­orge plays.

It is a dan­ger­ous prece­dent be­cause since Jones agreed to be­come Eng­land coach in Septem­ber 2015 he has been a staunch ad­vo­cate of a mer­i­toc­racy in which he selects play­ers on the ba­sis of con­sis­tently ex­cel­lent per­for­mances at club level. He is also not shy of let­ting play­ers know if they are fall­ing be­low the stan­dards ex­pected of them in Pre­mier­ship games.

This was high­lighted re­cently when Jones sug­gested that Hart­ley’s Northamp­ton team-mate Court­ney Lawes had started the sea­son like a house on fire, “but that some­one has poured wa­ter on that fire, and we need to reignite it”. This was in­con­gru­ous given that Lawes has been the best Saints for­ward by a street in the matches I’ve seen this sea­son, and far more prom­i­nent than Hart­ley.

The Eng­land coach has ex­plained fre­quently that Hart­ley’s lead­er­ship ex­tends be­yond the pitch and is a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on team cul­ture, and the sense of in­de­pen­dence, self-be­lief and men­tal tough­ness that he is try­ing to in­stil.

While the im­por­tance at­tached to build­ing team spirit is un­der­stand­able, my in­stinct is that this is putting the cart be­fore the horse. The key el­e­ment in rugby lead­er­ship is that the cap­tain has the re­spect of his play­ers where it counts most, which is still on the pitch.

Any trawl through the an­nals of cap­taincy tells us that trouble starts when a cap­tain loses his au­thor­ity as a player – and in­vari­ably that is be­cause his team-mates do not con­sider him to be the best player in his po­si­tion.

It was sug­gested to me re­cently that I am bi­ased in favour of Ge­orge, and Sara­cens, over Hart­ley and Northamp­ton. I have no vested in­ter­est in ei­ther player, or their clubs, but will ad­mit to ad­mi­ra­tion for the con­sis­tently out­stand­ing lev­els of per­for­mance that Ge­orge and his team-mates have achieved on the play­ing field.

If it was Hart­ley push­ing the play­ing bound­aries in the same way as Saints cap­tain that ad­mi­ra­tion would ap­ply ev­ery bit as much to him.

“Jones is in dan­ger of hav­ing one rule for his cap­tain, and one rule for the rest of the squad”

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