Eddie Jones has defended his England captain, Dylan Hartley, and suggested that replacing him with Jamie George is not in his thoughts.
The British and Irish Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, has strongly hinted that Hartley will not be part of his plans for the tour of New Zealand this summer and has talked up the chances of Ireland’s Rory Best, Wales’s Ken Owens and George, who many believe will start the first Test on 24 June.
But while some of Hartley’s critics believe the Northampton Saints forward is no longer justifying his place in the England squad, Jones disagrees and believes his skipper played better during the successful Six Nations campaign than he did during the autumn internationals last year, when England beat South Africa, Australia, Fiji and Argentina.
“Dylan is an outstanding captain,” defended Jones. “I’m not discussing Lions selection but he is an outstanding captain for us and does a super job. There’s no reason why he won’t continue to do a super job.
He added: “I thought he was better than he was in November – and there’s no reason why, the next time he comes in, he can’t be better than he was this time. As long as he keeps improving, he’s in the right direction, like every other player.”
But it’s becoming harder and harder for Jones to defend starting Hartley. The 30-year-old did not play more than 60 minutes in any match during the Six Nations, with George making a notable impact in the narrow victories against France and Wales. He has also not played for Northampton since he was given a six-week ban last December for a swinging arm on Leinster’s Sean O’Brien in their European Champions Cup encounter.
Yet Jones would not be drawn on whether Hartley needs to be performing for his club in order to remain his first choice for England and force his way into the Lions reckoning. In fact, Hartley will not be available for this weekend’s Premiership clash with East Midland rivals Leicester Tigers, as he jetted off to Dubai with his family soon after the defeat in Dublin.
“I don’t pick the Northampton side, so how can I answer that? Why would you want me to answer that? That’s Northampton’s decision,” he added. When asked over the last six weeks about Hartley, Jones has been keen to praise his leadership skills and the value of his experience on the rest of the squad.
Yet he was asked directly what he’s made of Hartley’s performances and form for the first time, and after claiming the hooker is playing at a higher level than he was last autumn, he compared him to the former England cricket captain, Mike Brearley, and his impact as a captain rather than a player.
Hartley’s Six Nations minutes
54 vs France
46 vs Wales
55 vs Italy
60 vs Wales
54 vs Ireland
Brearley did not play for England until the age of 34, and had a rather mediocre batting average of 22.88 over 66 Test innings, failing to score a century during that time. But, as a captain, Brearley excelled, losing just four of the 34 Tests he guided England in and manufactured the 1981 Ashes turnaround, drawing the best out of a rejuvenated Ian Botham.
“It’s like when Mike Brearley captained the England cricket team; everyone questioned him, then he won the Ashes and no-one questioned him,” said Jones in the latest of a long line of cricket analogies. Yet for Brearley, one of his defining moments came in reaching the Cricket World Cup final in 1979, beating new Zealand in the semi-finals. However, he was criticised for using up too many overs in the final, along with Geoffrey Boycott, and put too much pressure on the lower order to score late runs against the West Indies. Defeat followed, and the similarities to Saturday’s loss against Ireland make for an interesting comparison. Did Jones wait too long to send on his lower order, the “finishers”, to see England over the line? If George is having the larger impact on the performance, and Hartley still influencing the squad, it would make more sense to give the Saracens hooker more minutes and bring Hartley off the bench late on, his mere presence having the required effect on those around him.
That means passing the captaincy, and here’s Jones’s problem; who takes it on? Like in 1980, when Brearley passed the responsibility on to Botham, along with losing his Test place, Farrell’s form could suffer by the added pressure. With that the case, Jones may well choose to stick with Hartley until he has no other option than to make the change.