Jamie George was the best hooker in England last season, but barely got a look-in at Test level. And when recognition did eventually come, like so much about the Red Rose World Cup campaign, it was too little too late.
George’s international credentials have been reinforced this campaign as part of a Saracens pack that, having won the Premiership title and gone further in the European Champions Cup than any of their English rivals by reaching the semi-finals for three years running and the final in 2014, has started with a bang.
As the English champions contemplate today’s trip to Newcastle they are not just five games unbeaten as league leaders, they have also blasted past two of European club rugby’s heavyweights, Toulouse and Ulster, to complete a blemish-free start to their two-pronged campaign.
Now, as last season, those feats are built squarely on set-piece power and cohesion, with George’s scrummaging and throwing prowess at No.2 a core component – although he rammed home his Test credentials in the Premiership final six months ago with an added extra.
George’s try at Twickenham from a 40 metre burst was as show-stopping as it was unexpected, as he shifted his 17-stone frame through enough forward gears to leave three Bath players in his vapour trail. Following that 28-16 showpiece triumph George has not eased off at all – in fact, he and his Saracens team-mates have had their foot to the floor.
George, 25, whose leadership ability was recognised by Saracens coaches for the second time this season when he has been handed the captaincy for the trip to Kingston Park, is clearly enjoying his post-World Cup rugby life rather than dwelling on what might have been.
If failing to the make the cut for Stuart Lancaster’s World Cup long-squad last May was viewed by most observers as a travesty, then the decision by the former England head coach to call George into the squad to replace the self-imploding Dylan Hartley, but then give him only bit-parts off the bench, compounded it.
When two second-half cameos in the warm-ups against France (away) and Ireland (home) were followed by an hour in the tournament dead-rubber against Uruguay, the sense of a wasted opportunity to utilise a hooker who had outshone Hartley, Tom Youngs, below, and Rob Webber was palpable.
George, who, having spent the first six years of his career with Saracens, signed a contract extension this week, says he sees it differently. He accentuates the positives: “For me the World Cup experience was a great one. It went from originally not being in the squad at the start of the summer, and then managing to work my way in – and by the end of the tournament I had three England caps.
“It is still the proudest moment of my career running out at the Stade de France, with my friends and family making the trip over to Paris.”
He adds: “Overall, the disappointment is clear – but on a personal note I was happy training with the best players in England, and hopefully I’ve taken that form into this season.”
Then comes a more revealing stock-take, including an anecdote about comparing notes with his England and Saracens team-mate, lock George Kruis: “Of course, I was very disappointed not to be involved during the tournament until Uruguay, but I understood that Tom Youngs and Rob Webber were in good form – Tom was outstanding – but I had to use the experience in a positive sense.
“George (Kruis) is one of my closest friends, and we were in a similar situation. We discussed it, and agreed we simply had to get our heads down and be ready if the call came.”
So, how does he rate his chances of getting the call from Eddie Jones, the former NSW Waratahs hooker who has replaced Lancaster?
“Having had a taste of international rugby I’m desperate for more. But I’m really enjoying Saracens, and that’s my main focus. I want to put my best foot forward and make the most of what comes along.
“If that’s more international honours, it would be fantastic. But I’ve got a tough rivalry at Saracens with Schalk Brits, above, and it is about continuing to develop, because I know there’s a lot more to come.”
What George and any other Premiership hooker with international aspirations can be sure of is that Jones is a hard task-master who sets his standards on the top rung.
It’s is quite possible, therefore, that hookers who cannot actually hook the ball, or consistently throw-in straight – of whom there are far too many in the Premiership – could find themselves at a significant disadvantage.
George says he is prepared because hooking the ball (with a foot-strike) is something he is not only familiar with, but comfortable with, even though Saracens favour a knee-strike combined with shunting the opposition backwards.
“When I joined Saracens I was soon put at hooker by Mike Hynard, our academy coach, but I was a fly-half until 14, and sometimes also played No.8. At that stage I was taught to strike for the ball, and had help from my uncle, Robbie, who was a hooker at Northampton. When the scrum law changes came in last season I went back to him, and his advice was to strike more for channel one ball, so I often work on my striking. It’s something we have in the armoury, and we’ve worked hard at. At hooker you need different strings to your bow, especially against big French club packs in Europe, and we’ve had a look at how New Zealand scrum.”
Having just coached a Japan side whose hooker, Shota Horie, struck to produce quick, clean channel one ball to his No.8’s feet throughout the World Cup – including in the epic win over South Africa – Jones is acutely aware of the benefits of swift attacking ball from the base of the scrum.
It’s no surprise that world champions New Zealand, whose outstanding No.2 Dane Coles even eclipses Horie in the hooking stakes, share the same view as Jones, making it almost inevitable that versatility and a broad skill-set at hooker will be a prerequisite for the new England head coach.
However, George says you also play to your strengths. “Having come back to Saracens I’m convinced that getting on top physically brings its rewards. I’ve learned my scrummaging here, and primarily we scrum for penalties and dominance. In the World Cup it was different, as you could see with sides like Japan going for channel one ball. However, England and Saracens have a similar mindset – even if England didn’t quite get it right at times, such as in the Australia game.”
The Saracens No.2 adds: “At the minute I like to strike off my knee, and if you get it right it can be as good as channel one ball. The benefit of using the knee is that you are in a pushing position all the time with both feet on the floor. Those stalemate scrums you see with the ball stuck in the tunnel are very often just bad knee-strikes – and I’ll always blame the scrum-half!”
That George is a smart operator is also evident in assiduous attention to line-out throwing which has earned him the reputation as one of the most accurate operators in Europe. This includes sessions with the RFU’s line-out guru, Simon Hardy, whom he has has worked with for a decade.
“A lot of it is mind games.
‘Cricket’ is my buzzword, mainly because I’m a cricket fan. The way I relax before every throw is a seven-step process. It starts with getting my hands on the ball early, spinning it between my fingers, getting my heart rate down, and it finishes with me holding my finishing position after the throw just like a batsmen does after playing a stroke.”
He continues: “Throwing-in is a closed skill with a lot of pressure on it, and I’ll still spend a half-hour every week with Simon. You are aware that you have to be on the money, especially as the Saracens line-out is going so well. However, I go in very confident, and I’ve never really had the ‘yips’. I think it’s because I’m very process-driven, and if a line-out doesn’t go right I don’t dwell on it. Whereas I used to get very frustrated, I have learned to cut it away, not overthink, and move back to my seven step process.”
It is that maturity and nous which earned George this endorsement from Saracens forward coach, Alex Sanderson: “I’ve known Jamie man and boy, and I had him as a leader in the England U18 squad. I think everyone thought he deserved more of a run (during the World Cup).
“I also understand why they went for Webber – it was about experience pure and simple – and I disagreed with that wholeheartedly. Jamie’s a brilliant player, and we’ve known that for years.”
The stage is set for the Saracens hooker, now all that remains is for Jamie George to summon the skills and adaptability he has shown in rehearsals, and play the part.
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