By Nick Cain
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.
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