Expect Jones to recall Hartley as England’s captain and hooker
After just 34 minutes on pitch for Northampton he showed that he still has what it takes to be at top
Ithink Eddie Jones will have been absolutely delighted with what he saw from Dylan Hartley on Friday night – and what it means for his England team. There is no doubt he sees Hartley, when fully fit, as his leader. And think he is right to do so. England badly missed Hartley’s presence on their summer tour to South Africa.
In some sports I think the debate over team captaincy is a little overhyped. In football, for instance, a captain can obviously lead by example on the pitch and try to set the tone in the dressing room.
But he is not invested with nearly the same responsibility, tactical or emotional, as his rugby counterpart. He is not the only man on the pitch allowed to converse with the referee. He is not deciding whether to kick for the corner or kick for goal. He is not trying to read the referee’s interpretation of the breakdown, or tacitly trying to influence it.
The captaincy role in rugby is hugely important. We talk about the need to have a “leadership group” in a rugby team, and that is right. You do need leaders all over the pitch; players who can take responsibility for the different areas of the game and try to set the right tone.
But there is only one man who has that overarching responsibility and it is no coincidence that all the great teams in history have had great captains, from Willie John McBride to Francois Pienaar, from Martin Johnson to Richie McCaw.
I’m not saying that Hartley is on that level, necessarily. He is not a gamechanger in his own right as a player as some of the above were. But as long as he is still pulling his weight on the pitch, he doesn’t need to be the best player.
The truth is, you look around this England team and it is not easy to say who else should take the armband.
Owen Farrell is a game-changer and will surely be a great captain in time. But he is still learning, and I’m not sure it helps him to have that added responsibility now. He has enough decisions to make during a game as it is. Let him focus on his performance.
Maro Itoje could develop into a leader but he is still callow. Joe Launchbury is captain of Wasps, but his place in the team is not assured. Chris Robshaw has experience and could be a stopgap, but likewise, his place at No6 is not assured.
The argument against Hartley when he first took over the reins following Jones’s appointment was twofold.
First, it was felt by many that he probably wasn’t going to be the starting hooker for England at the World Cup in 2019. Therefore why waste time on him as captain?
I don’t think that argument applies any more.
No other hooker has made themselves undroppable in the past three years. Jamie George is an excellent player, but I don’t think he has done enough to persuade Jones that he has to start him.
Hartley is still only 32 and, on the evidence of Friday night, he is fit. He made a noticeable impact in his 34 minutes on the pitch. Not only did he score Northampton’s try, but the scrum looked solid while he was on the pitch and he made good tactical calls in terms of keeping the scoreboard ticking over. The line-out also looked far more solid in the second half.
Second, it was felt in 2015 that Hartley was too much of a loose cannon to be England captain.
Again, I don’t think that argument stands scrutiny any longer. He has barely put a foot wrong since assuming the captaincy.
He has a spikiness that Jones likes and that his team-mates respond to. He is incredibly competitive, as all the great captains are. Johnson and McCaw played on the edge. They learnt to temper their game to suit the occasion, and I think the captaincy forced Hartley to do likewise. Certainly what you hear from the outside is that the England players see Hartley as a strong leader, not only on the pitch but off it. Someone who is able to put their views across to the team management and vice versa. He clearly has the respect of his team-mates. When you think that time spent off the field is 95 per cent of the total time players spend together, this is really where a strong team environment is established. This is when a good captain comes into his own. Having the right man is massively important.
OK, Hartley is not Dane Coles. He is not going to win you matches with his outstanding handling or running ability. But he is no passenger. If he continues to play as he did on Friday, I would expect Jones to bring him straight back in as his captain and starting hooker.