I think there needs to be a change. Whilst I fully understand why he was used, and indeed how it was successful, I think Dylan Hartley should not be the starting hooker for England against Wales. And starting him against the French was possibly Eddie Jones’s first real mistake.
At the beginning of his tenure, it was a clever move. Jones positioned Hartley front and centre: a snarling, snapping bull mastiff at the English gate. As a leader, Hartley does very well. He motivates, never asks what he wouldn’t be prepared to do himself, has a lot of respect amongst his peers and from where they were, he was just what England needed. But note the past tense. Things change. England are not where they were a year ago.
England had lost a lot of respect. After Lancaster’s men curled one out on their own front lawn, opponents weren’t too worried. Jones’ idea was to bring a bit of bite back to proceedings, and who better than Hartley? Not involved in the calamitous World Cup, here was a man who not only brought experience but also authority. A sit down and shut up edge. And it cut both ways; Jones knew how loyal Hartley would become. The Northampton man would work within camp, reinforcing his new master’s words amongst the players. This was Jones at his astute best.
But towards the tail end of a successful year, Hartley hit Sean O’Brien high in a European Cup match and once again the commissioner was called in. The ban handed out would relent just before the Six Nations. It was like Hartley was becoming England’s first ever centrally contracted player. Jones came out in defence of his man but there were hints of disquiet.
“In a national team, your job is to add to the jersey. So Dylan’s job is to add to the value of the captaincy. He’s doing that at the moment but what happens in the future, like every other position, is up for discussion.” said Jones.
So Hartley came into the England starting squad looking to impress, and having not played competitive rugby for six weeks. For someone of his natural quality, perhaps walking back into a full strength squad may not have been so much of an issue. But that is not how England found themselves. Without the likes of Robshaw and the Vunipolas, without Haskell at his marauding best and with someone like Itoje playing out of position, more would be asked of Hartley’s game. And when you exert more pressure, cracks are more likely to show.
Maybe Jones got a little soft. There is an underestimated amount of compassion in the Australian. Maybe he wanted more than anything for Dylan to be right for the France game. After the unbeaten year they’ve had together, they will have forged a strong mutual affection. But in starting his captain, Jones made the tiniest leap of faith. Hartley wasn’t right for that game. And not only that, the situation wasn’t right for Hartley.
For the game against Wales, England need their best available players on the pitch. And for me, at the moment, Dylan Hartley is not one of those.
Sam Roberts © 2017. (Text only). All Rights Reserved