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Cain column: Greatest? No way, but Dylan Hartley has had his moments with England

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Nick Cain

Eddie Jones is not averse to stirring the pot, and he did so this week as part of a fulsome tribute to his sidelined captain, Dylan Hartley, that had more than a touch of the valedictory about it.

After praising Hartley’s character, and the way he was instrumental in pulling the England team together after Jones picked him as captain in 2016, ‘Fast Eddie’ went over the top by claiming that he is England’s most successful captain.

This put him above Martin Johnson, and while in percentage terms Hartley’s win record is marginally better at 85 per cent (23 wins out of 27)  to Johnson’s 82 per cent (37 wins out of 45), the 2003 World Cup winning captain is well ahead on the ledger when it comes to who is England’s greatest captain. (And Will Carling could weigh in with his three Grand Slams).

Jones, whose 2003 Wallabies were beaten by Johnson’s world champion outfit in the final, will have had few qualms about having a jab at his former nemesis, but the reality is that he has been blinded by loyalty to a player he backed to the hilt after England achieved tremendous success in his first two seasons in charge.

Hartley not only earned deserved kudos for leading England to a Grand Slam in 2016, but also trumped it that summer by taking them to a first tour series victory in Australia, whitewashing the Wallabies three nil.

However, by the time an epic 17-match winning run was brought to a halt in Dublin at the end of the 2017 Six Nations, the cracks in Hartley’s own game were becoming hard to ignore. His lack of impact in the loose, and his almost statutory replacement by Jamie George before the final quarter, was reflected in him missing selection for the 2017 Lions – with George destined to become the Test hooker.

Although Jones turned the clock back this season, keeping Hartley in pole position for England, the fifth-place finish in the 2018 Six Nations – combined with Hartley’s indifferent form – appears to have made him re-evaluate the status quo.

In that regard, Hartley’s unavailability to tour South Africa this summer due to the latest in a series of three significant concussions – that are said to be career threatening – may have served as a watershed

Rather than Jones saying that Hartley is still his preferred captain for the 2019 World Cup when he recovers, he was more much guarded. “If he’s right to play, he’ll play,” Jones said. “He’ll come back with intent and dedication, and he’s got to fight to get his place back in the England side. He doesn’t know (when he’ll be back) – he’s relying on the doctors to give him the all-clear.”

He added: “If he doesn’t come back he’ll be remembered as the most successful captain England’s ever had. Look at his winning percentage, it is higher than any other Test captain.”

It is, but Hartley’s record was also achieved at a time when England did not play New Zealand – whereas Johnson’s side not only beat them at Twickenham, but also in Wellington. There is also the small matter that Johnson captained England in 18 more Tests at a time when, as well as New Zealand being formidable, Australia and South Africa were far more difficult opposition than they have been in recent seasons.

Another significant difference is that Johnson’s name would always have been among the first on the team list because of his sheer impact on the field, irrespective of his leadership capabilities. Unfortunately, the same has not been true of Hartley. While he has been a strong set-piece hooker, who made huge improvements to his line-out throwing to become one of the most accurate in the business, his influence around the pitch did not match it.

However, Jones took the view that even with that deficit in an era in which hookers like New Zealand’s Dane Coles, France’s Guilhem Guirado, and Saracens Schalk Brits took the impact of the No.2 in the loose to a new level, Hartley’s leadership qualities around the squad were indispensable.

That was his call to make, and Jones said in defence of his support for Hartley: “It’s extraordinary what he’s done for this country, and it’s extraordinary the criticism he attracts.”

This is pleading for special status in a game in which all other respects Jones acknowledges is unforgiving. There is also the small matter of the long-standing evidence that a captain must always be worth his place in the starting line-up, so there were always going to be questions asked – not least by your correspondent.

Hartley did not like the criticism, and you would not expect him to. However, if this is to be a valedictory my abiding memory of Hartley is one of his courage and combativeness as England battled for their 2016 Grand Slam in Paris.

With 12 minutes remaining the French shipped the ball to their huge 22 stone prop Uini Atonio while he was at full tilt. It was one of those stampede moments where games can shift, because if Antonio broke through England would be reeling. Hartley made sure it did not happen by hurling himself into a fearless tackle which brought Atonio crashing down, but also, having caught a knee to the temple, left the England captain unconscious on the turf.

Hartley was stretchered off, but France were also stopped in their tracks – and the battered England skipper returned to the field after the final whistle to lift the trophy and celebrate his country’s first Grand Slam for 13 years.

It was as good an example of leading from the front as you could get – but given Hartley’s concussion record it may have come at a price.

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