By Nick Cain
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 two-year 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-year-old 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 adds: “George had a good Lions tour, and Gatland was not looking for a captain when he selected his hookers. George is a good top of the ground footballer who made the sort of contribution his back row was making in the loose. He was making breaks into the middle of the opposition 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 off 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 role-reversal 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.
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